Friday, August 01, 2014

Wearable tech and the corrections market

GPS ankle monitor: Looks uncomfortable
Lately, your correspondent has been fiddling in my spare time with a hobbyist-level wearable technology project involving a couple of cheap sensors (which soon will be) wired into a pair of gloves to generate beats, tones, and lights. In the process, I've become more familiar with the state of wearable technology, even attending a Austin techie meetup on the topic a few weeks back.

It's not hard to imagine useful implications in different industries for wearable tech, but as a distinct consumer market, many observers view the field as a disappointment. The Guardian recently asked, "Wearable technology hasn't taken off the way it was expected to - why not?" A few serious, local startups are working on exercise or health-related wearable apps, but consumers haven't bitten beyond a few kids in light-up tennis shoes or cheap club gear. At this point, your refrigerator and thermostat are more likely to talk to your computer than your clothes.

What you don't see in any of the business tech press about wearables are analyses of wearable tech in the law enforcement and corrections industries, though that may be their biggest field of success so far. The use of GPS trackers on probationers and pretrial defendants out on bail has become so ubiquitous that larger departments suffer from data overload. In treatment courts, but also in some jurisdictions for regular DWI probationers, so-called SCRAM technology - an anklet with a sensor that measures alcohol in one's perspiration - are so popular that Texas courts can't afford nearly all of them that judges would like to use. (I'm waiting for the day probationers' anklet can talk to them; the tech already exists.)

Awkward police 'body cam'
Setting aside community supervision issues, police officers today are ever-more frequently decked out with body mics and cameras, a market that Taser International leads almost by default. Police today often make traffic stops in state of the art body armor, boasting an array of gadgetry around their belts that remind one of Batman. To the extent that routine tech can be incorporated seamlessly into something the officer is wearing anyway - especially tech that can transmit useful data back to a supervisor in real time - there's a significant law-enforcement market to be had.

For quite some time, cops and crooks arguably have been the biggest markets for "wearable tech," even if it's seldom discussed in that frame. That will remain true for the near future, with much room for expansion in that market in the near term. There's even a (perhaps overly optimistic) argument to be made that wearable corrections tech could "make it possible to replace the system of large-scale imprisonment," that manufacturers in that market contribute to progressive de-incarceration goals.

I'd love to see a company like Adafruit take on wearable tech for law enforcement - somebody that cares if the product is ugly, if it's elegant, well-designed, comfortable, if it works as advertised. If Adafruit started re-imagining police body cams and alcohol sensors for probationers, IMO they'd leave Taser and SCRAM in the dust. Those folks have forgotten more about wearable tech than the other two companies likely know.

The wearable market so far has pigeon-holed itself largely into areas - exercise and health - where people themselves use generated data, or fashion, where sensor data may trigger an accessory but not necessarily a paper trail. In corrections fields, though, it's police management, probation officers, or pretrial services divisions that make use of the data, not the wearer themselves. Those sorts of institutional customers with significant baseline demand constitute a captive market, if you'll pardon the pun. While it may seem distasteful to design technologies of control, it's better if highly skilled engineers sensitive to the wearers' experience create this tech. Either way, somebody's going to profit from it. Bet on that.

Zocalo, Mexico City, a great place for light-up garb at night
BTW, I do think there's an untapped market for a lot of the light-up or sound-generating wearable stuff for youth, but a lot of those items come relatively cheap from China and suffer from low margins. The more significant profit potential comes when you can find ongoing, real-world uses for wearable-generated data, which is why Grits foresees big profits for wearables in the corrections market.

AN ASIDE: Just for fun, we took some light-up garb with us to Mexico City to the zocalo after dark: The granddaughter's hoodie with EL Wire stitched around the edges, a few dozen small glow sticks, a couple of balloons with flashing RGB LEDs inside them, and three battery operated EL Wire strands long enough to use as a jump rope, one of which ended up lining a hat. Folks approached in gaggles wanting to buy one or the other of the light-up goodies, with somebody offering five times for a strand of EL Wire what I'd paid for it. We gave away glow-stick bracelets to the kids and referred would-be customers to the websites where I'd bought them. (This was a great way to meet families with kids, btw.) When it was bed time, the young'un gave away the balloons with flashing LEDs to a couple of little girls in the square and distributed the last of the glowsticks to a passel of teenagers before she turned, hoodie flashing, and we walked back through the seemingly ever-present multitude to our hotel. SEE MORE from a kid-centric vacation here.


Anonymous said...

Technology like this in a community corrections setting is nothing more than a false sense of security, a manner for politicians to sound like the are making a difference when all they really want is your vote, and a way for private industry to make money off defendants, many of which are indigent but who cares, pass the cost off to the consumer, that is the way things are done nowadays ...

What often happens is the private industry expects the community corrections professional to do all the work for them while they make all the money. Legislators, Judges, Prosecutors can all sound tough on crime but an ignition interlock won't stop a drunk driver from driving a different car, a SCRAM device won't stop someone from drinking (it just catches them if they do .. then what? throw them in jail? why?, were they committing a crime or just drinking alcohol on their back porch?)

Knowing where someone is at all times doesn't change behavior, it just tells you where they are; they could be at the drug dealers house, out of State, at home selling drugs, at home getting drunk, at home tending to their marijuana plants, or any number of other places.

Changing behavior through the development of a meaningful relationship is what has always made the difference with community corrections. Not technology.

But, we will continue to convince ourselves we are safer because of the technology when it does absolutely noting at all other than maybe temporarily contain (not reduce) the risk of new crimes being committed.

doran said...

The Guardian recently asked, "Wearable technology hasn't taken off the way it was expected to - why not?"

In a word: CLUNKY

Gritsforbreakfast said...

A lot of it is, Doran, good point. True of the cop stuff, too. The microprocessors have gotten ridiculously cheap and small, but batteries still klunk around. I'm not sure why the camera on the cop glasses is the size of a large screwdriver.

@4:55, I agree with some of what you're saying but suspect quite a few judges would disagree with your more sweeping declarations, especially judges in treatment courts using SCRAM. One may or may not like it but folks swear by them. Does SCRAM stop a determined drunk from drinking? No. Does the knowledge that their PO will find out prevent some significant proportion of people from drinking? Sure it does.

Similarly, to the offender the GPS tracker is a constant reminder of their situation - as much a head trip as a practical limit. I've written before how GPS trackers produce a) too much data and b) too many false positives to scale up to prison-replacement levels the way some proponents would have it. But the fact that I agree they're not a cure-all doesn't mean they don't have a place.

I don't think the offender should have to pay for GPS, SCRAM, etc., though. Counties save by not jailing them and I don't think it's wise or productive to mulct largely indigent defendants for it, or to divvy out justice based on who can pay.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@ doran - maybe I spoke too soon about the batteries. A lot of the materials stuff is evolving rapidly.

Anonymous said...

I cringe every time a judge orders a SCRAM or GPS monitor because of the cost. I don't know many people on probation who can afford an additional $350 per month for this monitoring on top of their household bills and other supervision costs.

I also disagree with 4:55 sweeping declarations. The monitors do modify behavior, as Grits noted, because they are a physical reminder of their supervision status.

Anonymous said...

It's very interesting and I have not commented before so this might not read very well, as I suspect it won't work, but if it does: GPS monitors ..a good idea as I think prison is cruel, basically. But it would remind the person all the time that they were not considered good citizens maybe, or something like that. So it would also be a punishment I suppose. Humiliation is a punishment, after all.

Anyway, just a thought

Katrina Wood
New Zealand

Anonymous said...

To 10:38:
Of concern regarding the $360 per month paid by offender.

If an offender cannot afford the device do they get prison? Or do they walk around without one because they can't afford it?

This sounds like it could easily be perceived as discrimination based on income. It is well documented how private prison industry games the political system to generate more bidness. Seems the privatization of corrections is moving from prison to probation...

Anonymous said...

@8:19- my department tends to put the decision on that up to the courts. I've had judges waive other financial requirements so the probationer could afford the cost of the monitor, and have had other judges waive the requirement altogether due to the financial burdern. It's really a crap shoot at times, unfortunately.

But to be clear: there's a BIG difference between not complying with a probation condition because of the financial burdern and flat out refusing to comply. Those who refuse to comply with monitoring will likely end up in jail and back before the court for sanction or revocation.

And as a caveat, this is MY experience in the probation field and not a general overview of probation in Texas.

Anonymous said...

4:55, although broad and general your points may resonate across the state of Texas within community corrections;regardless whether community corrections will admit it or not. No doubt there are exceptions as to how devices are incorporated into "changing offender behavior." But the reality is the love affair with private technology lends itself to "compliance monitoring" rather than offender change. Instead of "you did the crime, now do your time" in prison, it is serving time on a device. It appeals to taxpayers, the tough on crime crowd, and the lobbying enterprise. It would be interesting to see the results of comprehensive study on the use of these devices and the actual impact on recidivism rates.