Possible Projects

Nation of Neighbors

Art Hanson (arthurhanson@gmail.com) www.nationofneighbors.com

Toward a Nation of Neighbors: Expanding on the successful Watch Jefferson County project (Jefferson County, WV), Nation of Neighbors seeks to revolutionize the way community members and law enforcement interact to prevent crime and strengthen communities by facilitating real-time Neighborhood Watch via citizen reporting and fostering social participation within communities.

Nation of Neighbors accepts and scores anonymous reports. The report system sends real-time email or text message alerts to members whose alert criteria match the incoming report. Reports can also be aggregated by Community or Law Enforcement jurisdiction. Additionally, members can add their community to Nation of Neighbors and use the website to discuss reports within the community, participate in community discussion, share news, photos or documents or manage upcoming events.

Establishing Need

The idea behind Neighborhood Watch has existed as long as humans have banded together for common comfort and safety. In the United States, formal Neighborhood Watch efforts date back to the Town Watch in colonial America. The modern version of Neighborhood Watch endorsed by the National Sheriffs’ Association was developed in the early 1970s. While there are many forms of Neighborhood Watches in use in the United States and around the world, they all share a common focus: to deter crime by strengthening community relationships.

Many Neighborhood Watch programs and their promoters cite Dennis Rosenbaum (Rosenbaum 1988) when making a case for Neighborhood Watch or similar efforts: ". . . if social disorganization is the problem and if traditional agents of social control no longer are performing adequately, we need to find alternative ways to strengthen informal social control and to restore a 'sense of neighborhood'". The actual research conducted by Rosenbaum and others creates a murkier picture. While Neighborhood Watch has been proven effective at lowering crime (Bennett 2008) it is most effective in homogenic areas with low existing crime and least effective in areas that could most benefit (Skogan 1986). The lack of benefit has been attributed to community fear and mistrust, lack of participation, and ineffective or lacking social interaction, among other factors (Skogan 1988, Rosenbaum 1988).

Whether or not traditional Neighborhood Watch can effectively restore a sense of neighborhood is the subject of debate. According to one often cited study (Baker 1999), the requirements for establishing a successful Neighborhood Watch Program are neighborhood involvement, partnership between law enforcement and community members, a common understanding of the problems to be addresses, motivation and organization, and continuation of effort once the initial problem has been resolved. These hurdles are exacerbated by our modern lifestyle that often finds community members commuting long distances to work and working odd hours, leaving little time for building traditional neighborhood social networks. Neighborhood Watch programs also tend to decrease in effectiveness over time as key group members or law enforcement liaisons leave and community interest wanes. Additionally, there is often frustration among volunteers due to the one way flow of information or delays in the sharing of reports and information due to the hierarchical structure of most Neighborhood Watch programs.

Our current economic realities are dictating reduced funding for community policing and, at the same time, creating an enhanced concern about criminal activity on the part of community members. We believe these conditions, along with the recent success and large scale acceptance of online social collaboration, make now the right time to revisit Neighborhood Watch and perhaps improve upon it by simultaneously increasing social participation and allowing anonymity via Nation of Neighbors.

Scientific Foundation

Many of the challenges posed by Nation of Neighbors are the same as those posed by any other ambitious social media project. How do we get people to care, should they care, how do we scale it, how do we maintain quality, balance privacy and openness, display the data, etc. However, there are several issues that, while not absolutely unique to Nation of Neighbors, probably require more care and a deeper understanding than with most other social participation projects. Specifically, the balance of privacy vs. freedom, anonymity vs. trust and the role of government vs. private enterprise all take on new levels of importance.

Privacy vs. Freedom - While this challenge is encountered by every social media project, it takes on a whole new level of significance with Nation of Neighbors. If your boss finds out you weren't really 'sick' via your Facebook page, that's unfortunate. If a drug dealer knows you reported him, your life may be in danger. Where do you draw the line between preventing crime and becoming 'Big Brother'?

Anonymity vs. Trust - One of the ways Nation of Neighbors addresses the previous challenge is by restricting access to sensitive information to trusted accounts. We do this on a small scale by speaking with potential member in person. New members are also vouched for by an existing member from their community. We currently have 600 members. How could this same level of trust be achieved at a scale of millions? Can it work? Because we need to establish trust, we collect sensitive personal information about our members including phone numbers and addresses - and crime or activity they report. We need to protect them from retribution from the 'bad guys' while providing sufficient information to establish credibility with other community members and law enforcement.

Government vs. Private Enterprise -What is the role of a 'company' in collecting suspicious activity information? There are laws prohibiting private companies from profiting from public data. Does that apply to Nation of Neighbors? Nation of Neighbors blurs the line between government and citizen responsibility and is bound to present interesting legal questions.
While science can speak to these questions, it can not definitively answer them. These questions also involve law, politics and public opinion.

Research Challenges

While these questions need to be discussed in the public arena in the context of our society and its underlying laws and values, science can help point us in the right direction and guide the discussion. We believe there are some very specific research challenges that can be addressed to help us better understand these fundamental questions. Study in these areas would provide immediate benefit to Nation of Neighbors and also be easily applicable to other efforts, especially efforts involving cooperation between private individuals and government.

Matching possibly related reports of crime, suspicious activity or other events by content analysis. The ability to match related reports across time and language would provide an obvious benefit to law enforcement, first responders and community groups. Nation of Neighbors will currently combine related reports into an 'incident' and display the affected region spatially as the extent of the locations referenced by the individual reports. However, this is currently based on report category and is only rudimentary at best. Research has been conducted looking into trends in crime data and even prediction. Can the same methods be applied in real-time to incoming anonymous reports?

Building and maintaining a large scale trust network. How do we best build a large scale national network of trusted individuals – while protecting identities and controlling cost? While an open-ended and ambitious question, research would have a far reaching impact.

Scoring the trustworthiness of anonymous input. Nation of Neighbors assigns a trustworthiness index to incoming reports, much like a credit score for submissions. The current system likely has much room for improvement. Research on a large scale could determine the factors most likely to affect report credibility. Published proven methods for establishing credibility of anonymous content could potentially have far reaching impact for both government and private industry.


Neighborhood Watch: A manual for citizens and for law enforcement. National Sheriff’s Association.
www.usaonwatch.org/pdfs/WatchManual.pdf accessed 15 May 2009

Dennis P. Rosenbaum. Community crime prevention: A review and synthesis of the literature. Justice Quarterly, Volume 5, Issue 3 September 1988, 323 - 395

Bennett Trevor, Holloway Katy, and Farrington David. “The Effectiveness of Neighborhood Watch”. In: The Campbell Collaboration Reviews of Intervention and Policy Evaluations 2008 (C2-RIPE)

Julie Wartell and J. Thomas McEwen. Privacy in the Information Age: A Guide for Sharing Crime Maps and Spatial Data. U.S. Department of Justic. Institute for Law and Justice. July 2001 NCJ 188739

Wesley Skogan. Fear of Crime and Neighborhood Change. Communities and Crime, Crime and Justice: A Review of Research. Vol. 8, edited by A.J. Reiss, Jr. and M. Tonry, 203-29. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wesley Skogan. Community Organizations and Crime. Crime and Justice: A Review of Research. Vol 10 Edited by M. Tonry and N. Morris. 39-78. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

T E Baker, J P Baker, R Zezza. Neighborhood Watch: A Leadership Challenge. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin Volume:68 Issue:2 Dated:February 1999 Pages:12 to 18 abstract: http://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=176789

Possible Projects