The Towson University Police Department (TUPD) is committed to improving the awareness of crime among the campus community. Awareness is a cornerstone of TUPD’s overall crime prevention strategy, helping TU consistently experience the lowest number of Part I crimes per capita in the University System of Maryland. The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (Clery Act) requires all colleges and universities participating in federal financial aid programs to maintain and disclose campus crime statistics and security information. An element of the Clery Act requires institutions to provide ongoing prevention and awareness campaigns for students and employees, including issuance of ‘timely warning’ campus alerts. These notices are issued whenever there is a threat that a serious crime is ongoing or may be repeated so that campus community members can make informed decisions to protect themselves from harm.

The Center for GIS at Towson University (CGIS) was asked to create and deliver a fast, simple, online tool—Timely Warnings Tool—that could quickly indicate if the location of a reported crime was within a reporting area boundary. Based on Clery Act requirements, CGIS assisted TUPD in creating a geographic boundary (reporting area) around campus. If a crime is reported at a location within the reporting area, TUPD will issue a timely warning to the campus community.

 

CGIS further assisted TUPD by simplifying their internal timely warning assessment process. The primary way TUPD becomes aware of local crimes is via 24/7 monitoring of radio and scanner traffic from local and state law enforcement agencies.

We wanted to create a tool that was simple, intuitive, and fast. We wanted the tool to accept a location—in the form of a street address, intersection, landmark, or point of interest—and quickly answer the question: “Is a timely warning notice required based on this location?” The answer had to be a clear YES or NO while also providing some contextual information about the entered location and its relation to the campus reporting area boundary.

Finally, we wanted the user to be able to filter and list previous searches.

 “CGIS has delivered a tool that’s simple to use and fits right into our Timely Warnings workflow. We now have a clear boundary that incorporates local student address concentrations, and can easily determine if the location of a crime may qualify for issuance of a Timely Warning”. —Joseph Herring, Interim AVP Public Safety & Chief of Police

Design

When we started browsing the web for design inspiration, we quickly found a site that had a perfect design for our needs. This was also a website that everyone has visited and immediately knows how to use. It’s the Google.com homepage.

screen capture of google homepage

Google.com is the most visited website in the world. The site is laser focused: there’s a text box and a “Search” button and that’s it. It is understood that the user enters a search term into the text box and then clicks “Search” to see the results. Suggestions are also automatically provided as the user types, and the user can click on one of these suggestions to use it as the search term.

We wanted our Timely Warnings Tool to work exactly the same way:

  • The user enters an address or location in a text box
  • The tool automatically provides suggestions to the user if a suggestion is available
  • To execute a search, the user can either click on a suggestion, press the “Enter” key, or click the “Search” button

Timely Warnings Tool Home Page

The home page is what you see above. If the location entered by the user is within the Reporting Area, a large green “YES” appears on the page.

If the location is outside of the reporting area, a large red “NO” appears on the page, as well as the distance from the reporting area in miles.

The location is also visualized in several ways. We display three maps:

  • A regional Google street map that shows the entire reporting area in red, and the search location as a map marker
  • A local Google street map that zooms in to the search location
  • A local Google satellite map that zooms in to the search location

And we display a Google Street View image of the search location. If the user clicks on this static StreetView image, an interactive StreetView panorama will open in a new browser tab.

Google Street View provides context to the search location. We want to see where it is relative to the entire reporting area, but we also want to zoom in and give the user a close-up view of what is actually at the location at street level.

Timely Warnings History Page

If the user clicks the “History” tab at the top right of the screen, they are taken to the History page where they are able to set filter criteria and see past timely warning searches.

The user can filter on two criteria:

  1. Date Range: Start date and end date
  2. Timely Warning Status: Required, Not Required, or All

Based on the chosen criteria, results are returned as cards and the user can sort them by oldest or newest. The user also has the ability to Download the search results in .CSV format, which can be opened as a spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel.

Technology

The CGIS team used several Google technologies for this application, not only because they are well documented and easy to use, but because they are very robust and very quick.

  1. Google Place Autocomplete Service. This technology powers the type-ahead search box. It is very robust—it accepts addresses, points of interest, and even business names. This flexibility allows the user to type in a location in several different ways, and the Google service is clever enough in most cases to figure out what the user actually means.
  2. Google Geocoding Service. Geocoding is the process of converting an address (like “1600 Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View, CA”) into geographic coordinates (latitude 37.423021 and longitude -122.083739). These coordinates are used to place a marker on the map or to position the map. There are many geocoders out there, but Google’s geocoder is quick, robust, and stable. Like the autocomplete service mentioned above, the Geocode service accepts addresses, points of interest, and business names, as well as street intersections.
  3. Google Static Maps API. We use static maps in this application—meaning the maps are not interactive. They are static images. We chose to use static images because they are extremely fast and lightweight. Another benefit is that the user can save the images and use them in an email or report.
  4. Google Street View Image API. The Street View Image in this application is also just a static image and is not interactive, but is very quick to load.

In general, interactivity was sacrificed in favor of speed. The goal was to create maps that made sense at a glance.

For the back-end of the project, we used Microsoft SQL Server to capture all of the timely warning requests.

Moving Forward

Based on the success of this project, the Center for GIS is looking forward to working with the Towson University Police Department and helping them continue to achieve their crime prevention goals.