Last updated: February 10, 2011 6:43 pm
New app tracks police kettling
British students create program to warn protesters about police movement
SASKATOON (CUP) — In a story many Canadians are now all too familiar with, protesters and passersby alike found themselves hemmed in by riot police in downtown Toronto on the last day of the G20.
Those unlucky enough to be caught in the area were trapped in the intersection for hours during heavy rain, unable to leave without trying to break the police line holding them in.
The practice of pushing protesters together and encircling them is a controversial crowd-control tactic known as ‘kettling.’ It has been declared illegal in some countries, but continues to be used in others to subdue mass demonstrations like the ones seen in Toronto this past June.
One country that has continued to make use of the technique is Britain. Students there have been engaging in sometimes-violent protests over the mid-October announcement that university tuition fees will rise dramatically in the coming years.
In the wake of a recession related to the larger global financial crisis, the recently elected Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has dedicated itself to extreme fiscal measures, including a substantial increase in university tuition fees. The increase came as a shock to a nation that until the late 1990s offered post-secondary degrees at no cost.
Police in the U.K. have used kettling at times to break up the ongoing student protests and college building occupations. After being herded onto a bridge and kept there for several hours in freezing temperatures, a group of students at the University College of London have created a program to help protesters avoid the same fate.
“There’s been a huge series of protests as well, marches in the streets, around this, which have met with very, very heavy-handed police violence, basically,” said Tim Hardy, Sukey press director. “Very aggressive kettling, including pre-emptive kettling, batoning, charging people with horses.”
Sukey is a smartphone application, SMS text message service and online program that will allow people to find out where police are kettling protesters before they find themselves trapped.
“A group of computer scientists, engineers and physics students who were part of one of the key occupations at University College of London, they decided that they would use technology to help the protesters,” Hardy explained.
“They got a Google map, and as people called in with news of what was going on, you know, ‘The police have closed this, there are police horses there, there’s a kettle here,’ they would update the map with live data.”
As of Jan. 29, the full application is operational. The smartphone application uses a map similar to the initial form of the program, and it is updated as more information comes in. Colour-coded markers on the map denote entrances and exits on the march route: Red areas are already blocked, yellow areas may soon be blocked and green areas are clear.
The software finds messages on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and other social media platforms that use the hashtag #Sukey, and filters them using what Hardy described as “a kind of algorithmic reputation management.”
That allows the software to distill thousands of messages into a smaller, more manageable number, which the team can then read themselves. The more sources reporting a similar piece of information, the more likely that information is deemed to be.
People who don’t have smartphones can sign up for the free text message service the program offers. They will be sent messages when a new area is blocked or cleared. Others can go to Sukey.org and look at a live map there.
The software had its first test in London on Jan. 29, when students protested the tuition hikes again. A group of protesters broke from the pre-arranged march route to pass the Egyptian embassy and express solidarity with the uprising in Egypt.
“People who were heading there started to panic because they saw police closing roads, and a group noticed a lot of police horses were arriving towards the area,” Hardy said.
“And then the police noticed this as well, and they sent out a tweet using the #Sukey hashtag ... saying, ‘We have training grounds just half a mile to the West of the embassy. We have no intention of sending horses there [to the protest.]’ And we saw this, and saw that this is likely to be reliable, so we passed that back.
“I think what we like to see is that we’re creating a kind of level playing field, a space wherein the protesters and the police can be equal. By increasing transparency and visibility for both protesters and police, we reduce any excuse for behaviour like kettling, and we keep people safe and keep them moving and exercising their democratic right to peaceful protest.”