The Philadelphia Police Department was able to launch an anonymous text message tip line in just a few weeks by choosing Twilio as their short code and cloud communications provider. The tip line has been embraced by residents who are sending increasing numbers of tips. In the case of an emergency, the police can also send a secure response to the sender and request to make telephone contact.
The Philadelphia Police Department is the nation’s oldest municipal agency—and one of the most forward thinking. In March, the department decided to empower residents to fight crime by using SMS message. “For many people, text messages are the preferred method of communication,” said Karima Zedan, director of communications for the Philadelphia Police Department. “We wanted to make it possible for people to send anonymous tips from their cell phones and potentially help us solve crimes.”
The Philadelphia Police Department chose to build the tip line using Twilio based on ease of use and price. “Before Twilio, bridging the phone and Internet was really difficult,” said Dan Steinberg, who co-founded Hyaline Creative, the agency the department uses for web development. “Twilio made it simple, accessible and affordable.”
Hyaline Creative first tried out Twilio in a project that involved building an online database where businesses and citizens could register their security cameras. To verify the identity of the registrants, the department used a Twilio-powered phonenumber verification app.
Lloyd Emelle, Hyaline Creative’s other co-founder, said it took less than four days to create the tip line. One key requirement was the ability for the department’s Real-Time Crime Center to respond in a secure way to someone who was reporting an emergency situation, while maintaining the anonymity of the caller. The solution, Emelle said, was to share the contents of the message with officers staffing the center, while preserving the privacy of the phone number that sent the text.
Hyaline Creative initially built the tip line using a regular ten-digit phone number. However, the police department wanted to use a short code, a memorable five or six digit number that is approved by carriers for sending larger volumes of messages, so the developers applied for the short code, PPDTIP, through Twilio. Once it was approved, Hyaline Creative was able to move the app over to the short code in about three days, including the time for testing and quality assurance, Steinberg said.
Hyaline Creative has already added SMS capabilities to the department’s traditional tip line, and there are discussion to fully integrate the texting app with the department’s existing information systems.
“Other neat features we’ve built include the ability to check messages for addresses or intersections and keywords, like guns or theft, and to organize messages accordingly,” Emelle said. “The Twilio API made it super easy for me to get up and running in minutes and to put my ideas into action.”
Since its launch in April, the people of Philadelphia have embraced PPDTIP and are sending increasing numbers of SMS tips. Texts include everything from reports of suspicious people to sitings of all-terrain vehicles in the streets. Recently, a person witnessed a hit-and-run and sent in the license number and a description of the vehicle via SMS. “There is really nothing as quick and easy as sending a text message,” Steinberg said.