Vol. 78, No. 1Q & A

Three men stand behind a bar.

A citizen’s tool

Website helps businesses fight petty crime

Simon Gordon (right) created Facewatch in 2010 to curb petty crime in his wine bar after becoming frustrated with regular thefts from customers. Credit: Danielle Wright

Petty crime is hard to stop — and even harder to solve. That's why business owner Simon Gordon created Facewatch, a British website that connects businesses with each other — and with local police — to combat crime. Amelia Thatcher spoke to Gordon about the benefits of the tool.

Why did you create Facewatch?

I took over my father's London, U.K., business, Gordon's wine bar in, in 2003. Over the next few years, we expanded a lot, but one thing I couldn't stop was theft from customers. We had about 15 thefts per month. And I just looked at the whole crime reporting process and said, 'This is crazy, this is so inefficient.' So I talked to the police and a bunch of other people to get ideas and input and then started the platform Facewatch in 2010.

How do businesses use it?

It's a crime reporting platform at its heart. You can create a business profile to share images of criminals with specific groups. For example, restaurants can share with other restaurants, shops with shops and museums with museums. Businesses are organized by sector and location, because most low level thieves are specialists and don't like travelling far.

How does it help solve crime?

Say you're out having a drink somewhere and someone steals your bag. What normally happens is you call the police, or you have to go to the police station and report a crime. Then they'll come out and get the CCTV (closed circuit television) footage from the business' security cameras and try to find who did it — it's all very time consuming. With Facewatch, a business can upload the CCTV evidence on the spot, create a crime report, push a button, and it will go through to police. In order to be successful and stop crime, you need to be quick — otherwise it's out of date. Facewatch keeps police up to speed.

You turned to crowdfunding to develop Facewatch. Why?

Facewatch is a citizen's tool — it's for people. I thought it would appeal to people because everybody's got crime. Everybody talks and relates and says, 'Oh yeah, my friend's had her bag stolen,' so I thought it would be a good way of getting the money together. We raised nearly half a million pounds through that. And since then, we've raised another million pounds through private investors.

How big is this problem?

The thing that really surprised me was that there aren't many people stealing, but they're constantly committing crimes. For example, there's a woman who has 25 crimes in our system and she is not untypical. So if you arrest one person you immediately stop the mini crime wave in the area. So businesses are absolutely delighted — their crime rates have gone down 80 to 90 per cent in some stores.

How do police use this?

Police are there to keep the place safe, and if necessary, arrest people. They're not there to go around collecting CCTV footage. It can take up to three weeks for police to even view the footage once it's been through the process of collecting it. With Facewatch, they can look at footage within 10 minutes, so it reduces the process dramatically. And the goal isn't just to put loads of people in prison. That's counterproductive for everybody. What we're trying to do is prevent crime by seeing how the crimes are done.

What has been the reaction from police agencies?

They absolutely love it. They get the system for free because they're providing a service. They're getting this fantastic tool that's way in advance of anything they've got internally. And they save time picking up CCTV footage. It's a bit of a no brainer for police. In fact, we even have police forces paying for businesses to get the system, because they want shops to start reporting through it. We only charge a small monthly fee for businesses, about the price of a cup of coffee.

Where do you see this going in the future?

Our aim is to go global as soon as possible. We're enabling people to share information through the platform and providing apps for police and businesses. We want to make people responsible for crime so everyone gets involved and stops it. Police can only do so much, and it's really easy for us as businesses or as members of the public to stop crime just by being more observant.

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