This past week has been a tough one. It's forced us to look at systemic issues of racism and inequality which we have not been able to overcome for decades, some might say, centuries. It's tempting to think we don't have these issues in Canada, that we don't have racism in Alberta. In fact, that's what a young women from Innisfail was told by her community, including the mayor, when she attempted to organize an anti-racism protest.
As we grapple with issues surrounding over policing of racialized people and police brutality, this story in VICE about the Edmonton Police Foundation was brought to my attention by Taproot Edmonton's weekly tech round up.
In February, the Edmonton Police rolled out a partnership with a venture capital fund in order to build and deploy technology solutions to benefit Albertans and Edmontonians. The shared values and principals noted on their website speak to public safety, serving all people and creating new opportunities. In order to achieve these goals, the Community Solutions Accelerator (CSA) aggregates data from a range of sources including data from "health care, child welfare, social services, and policing databases" and shares that data with entrepreneurs to develop technological solutions. (Munn, 2020)
There are obvious problems with using data from vulnerable communities as privacy experts and activists have pointed out. I have written past posts - here, here and here - about how data encoded within systems, particularly AI systems, can amplify harm and deliver biased, unfair and inequitable outcomes. These same concerns around systemic oppression are evident in the approach being taken by the Community Solutions Accelerator's aggregation and use of data. There are also issues with respect to how securely that data is being shared and whether or not it remains anonymous, particularly when combined with other data sets.
However, in addition to all of that, what stood out for me about this initiative was their first challenge - a partnership with Alcanna to solve the issue of liquor store crime.
"The Edmonton Police Foundation (“EPF”) and the Edmonton Police Service (“EPS”) announce that they have teamed up with Alcanna Inc., Alberta’s largest retailer of liquor, to combat the epidemic of liquor store robberies and thefts that have plagued the City of Edmonton (the “City” or “Edmonton”) and drastically escalated over the last 18 months. In the Edmonton area, liquor store retailers have experienced approximately a 290% increase in Liquor Store Thefts between 2018 and 2019." (TrueBlueFriendYeg.com)
Let me be clear - I am all for safely being able to buy a bottle of Chardonnay and for the safety of workers in liquor stores. But...liquor store crime? That's the FIRST BIG CHALLENGE that this CSA is aiming to solve?
I get it. Alcanna put up a half a million dollars towards this initiative including $250K in prize money. They are losing millions of dollars (according to the press release) so solving this problem will benefit them. Local tech entrepreneurs get a chance to win some money and possibly commercialize a product. The police get to achieve their goal of reducing crime. Win. Win. Win.
So, what's the problem?
The problem is who frames the issue of liquor store theft as a big problem and who gets to direct resources - community resources - to solve this problem. I was curious to see how members of the Edmonton Police Foundation board might be tied to this issue and I found that one director holds a senior management role at the AGLC. I'm not going to name names, but it wasn't super hard to find this information. I suspect with more time to look into this I'd find other connections.
I don't think this is nefarious in any way, I just think that people tend to think about problems and issues form their own context. Thus, problems are framed by those in positions of power and they become the problems deemed worthy of being solved. Business interests will prioritize property crime, for example. However, if property crime is "meth-driven" as the Edmonton Police Chief claims, the issue isn't really property crime at all. If the real problem is that we don't have enough supports in place to help people with addiction then why aren't we prioritizing that problem?
In reading through the CSA challenge, I also learned that...
"All intellectual property will remain the property of the Alcanna and the Edmonton Police Foundation but will be free to assign any such IP to appropriate party(ies) as they deem fit." (TrueBlueFriendYeg.com)
Community resources gathered in the form of data through publicly funded organizations are used as inputs to drive solutions that are then privatized in the form of Intellectual Property. Personally, I think that's a problem.
Solving complex social problems is not as simple as applying technology solutions. Moreover, the way we conceive of the problems - who gets to decide what is a problem and who gets to determine what "solutions" need to be developed is itself problematic.
Munn, N. (2020, June 3) A Crime-Fighting Police Tech 'Accelerator' in Edmonton Has Activists Worried. VICE. Retrieved from - https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/m7jv7q/edmonton-community-solutions-accelerator-between-police-and-tech-has-activists-worried