Heres Columbo

By Ron Miller  |  Posted 2005-08-08 Print this article Print

."> Collier said that the cost and flexibility (not being tied to a single vendors solution) were big factors for MPD for moving with open-source components. Of course, for the decision makers among department brass, the fact that they could use open-source components without taking a big budget hit was, by far, the overriding factor for them.

"Any time you can spend less money, it would be attractive to people in charge," Collier said. "I think because its open source, and you are not necessarily committed to an Oracle [Corp.] or a [Microsoft Corp.] SQL Server, you have some flexibility, and the fact it costs you less is definitely a plus."

When Schader presented the initial idea of building the Columbo system, Collier had been working on a prototype of a mapping system (a system that he said was abandoned when they began developing Columbo).

About this time, the command staff was asked to present daily briefings on crime statistics in their area in a similar fashion to the system implemented in New York City following 9/11. Without a simple data retrieval system, it would have been very difficult to pull this information together each day.

Schader said he began building Columbo by finding a way to search detectives notes, which were in a database but had never been indexed to make them searchable. After conducting a search and examination of open-source indexing tools, Schader and his associates selected The Apache Software Foundations Apache Lucene.

"Indexing was one of our best and first open-source component successes," Schader said. "Very early on in the development of Columbo, it was clear that one of the big wins would be to provide full-text searching against detective case narratives, [which are] just a trove of information. The department had them all stored electronically, but there was no way to [search] across them and find case data you need. So we looked around and found an open-source package called [Apache] Lucene, a free text-indexing component."

After Schaders team got the initial detective notes project up and running in early 2002, he said that within six months, they added nine other systems. They have built on that to bring in more of the departments databases and have added mapping technology to make it easy for officers and detectives to visualize the data on a map of the city. They can mix and match information types such as mug shots, detectives notes and crime statistics and overlay this information on a map.

According to Schader, Columbo data gets regular updates. For example, dispatch data from the 911 system is updated every 15 minutes, and the case management system is updated every 24 hours.

"Information is readily available. Rather than having to go through and pull together different bits and pieces of information, they can actually produce information during the briefing and respond to changes in information," Collier said. It has not yet gotten to the point that officers can access the system on their patrol car laptops, he said, but the department expects to bring that functionality when they improve their wireless bandwidth.

"We started looking at making [wireless access] a reality. Weve tested it ... [and] we are preparing to move to a higher bandwidth like EvDO [Evolution Data Optimized] or 1X, and were looking to make Columbo data available in the squad car," Collier said.

Ron Miller is a freelance writer in Amherst, Mass. You can contact him at

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