20 Oct 2021

Preventing and tackling domestic abuse in a digital age

techUK recently ran a panel session with IBM, Capita, Anatomap and representatives from the Metropolitan Police, Greater Manchester Police, EDAC, London School of Economics and Refuge to discuss the role of technology in preventing and tackling incidents of domestic abuse.

It is widely accepted that technology offers tremendous potential as a force for good. We have seen a shift across the board to digital ways of working, and a reliance on technology more so now than ever before. March 2020 saw the first national ‘lockdown’ announced and, with this, charities such as Women’s Aid highlighted the increased risk of harm and isolation for those affected by domestic abuse. The Crime Survey for England and Wales showed that 1.6 million women and 757,000 men had experienced domestic abuse between March 2019 and March 2020, with a 7% growth in police recorded domestic abuse crimes. Although official data on the impact of lockdown on domestic abuse is limited, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported in May 2020, there was a 12% increase in the number of domestic abuse cases referred to victim support. With this, it was important for techUK to open up the discussion about how technology is supporting policing, victims of domestic abuse but actually how technology can also act as an enabler, and what industries responsibility is to ensure the safety of the technology being built.

techUK facilitated a panel discussion which included:

  • Detective Superintendent Matthew Pilch, Lead Responsible Officer for Domestic Abuse, Metropolitan Police;

  • Chief Superintendent Phil Davies, Director of Information, Greater Manchester Police;

  • Professor Tom Kirchmaier, Director of Policing and Crime, LSE;

  • Ria Ivandic, Research Associate, LSE;

  • Saima Shah, Employers Domestic Abuse Covenant (EDAC);

  • Simon Franc, Chief Executive Officer, Anatomap Limited;

  • Matt Stagg, Digital Policing Strategic Lead, Data & AI, Capita;

  • Lesley Nuttall, Cloud Security Engineer, IBM;

  • Jessica Eagelton, Senior Policy and Public Affairs Officer, Refuge.


All panellists highlighted the role and value of better access to data to make more informed decisions and support the frontline officer. Whilst the data hasn’t particularly changed in terms of the number of incidents of domestic abuse, the way victims engaged with police to report incidents of domestic abuse during lockdown did change. It was highlighted that the infrastructure has always been there, but COVID-19 gave forces the push needed to engage with it. Not only have forces been pushed to digital ways of working, but COVID-19 has also encouraged forces to think more about how they use and manage their data – with more care taken now than before.

It was highlighted –

  • It is important to explore what those technologies are that can support the frontline officer which will give them the confidence needed to make good decisions whilst they are in the living room of the victim.

  • How can policing better engage with industry to ensure data is being shared with the right partners. Domestic abuse is not a one agency approach. A multi-agency approach is necessary and, that again, needs good connectivity – and that is where technology can help.

“COVID really did give a shot of adrenaline to our technology enablement programme” in terms of finally getting GMP onto Office 365 through the National Enabling Programme, and “it has enabled us to reach out to other agencies and use these tools to share data in a much more enhanced way”. GMP gathers a huge amount of data as an organisation, and that data is harnessed but it’s about demonstrating how it is being used to keep the public safe. Technology has the power to put data at the fingertips of the police officer in the living room of their victim and, this kind of confidence spreads creating an environment where there is much more trust in victims coming forward – and technology can help in building that trust.

Domestic abuse cases are evolving and the last 18months has created a real digital step change, with, for example, the Metropolitan Police now starting to see data not as an IT problem but as an operational enabler. Previously, data projects were owned and run by ICT, and now they are starting to be owned and run by operational leaders. The value of data in operational policing and the way in which it can enable operational frontline staff to build closer relationships, deal with problems in a more humane way because they’ve already got the information to hand. Good quality data and data to hand is vital when addressing vulnerability and domestic abuse.

In addition, it is important to make sure officers understand what data to look at so when there are incidents of technology abuse, it doesn’t become nuanced. For example, enabling location tracking or monitoring an online status in messaging apps. Technology is everywhere and entwined with everything in society, and that means that an abuse in proximity to the target is immaterial and can pervade all elements of a victim’s life, both real and virtual. Therefore, the challenge is exactly knowing what data to look at.

Digital tools to support police and victims

To understand the role of technology to better support victims and policing, it is important to understand what exactly the problem to solve is. Challenges surrounding reporting was highlighted alongside whether victims have the tools and ability to record the crime. So, how can we increase reporting and, how do we give victims the confidence to report? Additionally, how do we then make sure that those reports can be acted on and that people can be successfully convicted? We heard from Anatomap and their work in this space. More information can be found here.

Refuge, when discussing the value of digital tools to support vulnerable individuals, reflected on the challenges raised due to the pandemic, with women feeling more isolated, and at home with the perpetrator 24/7 with fewer opportunities to call the domestic abuse hotline. Due to this, Refuge created a live chat function so women who didn't have the chance to make that kind of life saving call - without being overheard - would have a more discreet way to engage. Also recently launched was the tech safety website, which provides step by step guides for women wanting to secure devices, emails, social media accounts. Digital tools really have helped improve accessibility of services to a greater number of women.

EDAC explained their work in supporting victims, specifically women survivors of abuse. EDAC works with its members to create workplace opportunities as the economic impact of domestic abuse disproportionately effects women; particularly after COVID with the loss of jobs, isolation and different routes to employment. It’s important to ensure organisations develop domestic abuse policies which are gender neutral.

Technology to help police officers make informed decisions
The work Capita has been doing with GMP focuses on how they can make better use of their data, having their data in one environment to make more informed, faster decisions not just on a strategic level but to support the decision making of the frontline officer. During police interactions with victims, having a digital form which can tailor the questions, based on certain responses immediately streamlines the process instead of having to complete a number of paper forms. By moving from paper to digital you are simplifying the process and enabling the officer to spend more time with the victim. In addition, it also allows the data to be correctly captured and stored by the officer.

To add to this Ria highlighted the research being conducted through Oxford University on the role of automation to support officers to make the right decision. For example, matching 10 years of history of every call – the incident, victim, perpetrator. Then, how can we predict whether this individual will experience violence again in the next year and, how can we prevent this? Much of the data held by Police on the victim or perpetrator isn’t being used and we are only scratching the surface when it comes to harnessing the power of this data.

How does the design of technology play a key role in keeping vulnerable people safe?

Referring to technologies that are being used by perpetrators of domestic abuse, IBM, referencing their work, highlighted two main types. Technologies that are purposefully built to cause harm, and technologies that are manipulated to cause harm. Abusers are often highly motivated or obsessed with the desire to monitor, coerce or intimidate their victims and they can be very creative. In repurposing functionality within even the most honourable of technologies.
“Devices and applications that are intended to support and protect are being used to manipulate, isolate, spy on, undermine, embarrass, and scare, and due to the omnipresent nature of technology and society, it is very difficult to escape”. For example, the connected doorbell.

“Sometimes technologists can be so focused on the amazing achievements of their innovation that at first they may not notice the downside to that invention and, that is where thoughtful design comes in”. Technologists need to make sure that the burden of safety doesn't fall solely on the shoulders of the end user. By doing so and focusing on the intent of the abuser, technologists can think of ways that their tech might be leveraged maliciously. Once those threats have been modelled, it should then be possible to start designing ways to thwart them, resulting in technology that is not only safe by design, but also improves the lives of some of society's most vulnerable people.

Refuge further highlighted that domestic abuse and violence against women and girls hasn't changed in the fact that it is still about power and control. But what has changed is the ease with which abusers can monitor and abuse women due to widely available very cheap technologies and, with this, technology is increasingly being used as a tool to perpetrate abuse. Statistics include - between 2020 and May 2021 there was on average a 97% increase in the number of complex tech abuse cases – women reaching out requiring specialist tech support because of the complexity of the tech abuse. Abuse is taking place across a wide range of platforms and devices. From online harassment, stalking and monitoring spyware to tracking apps and devices in cars, online impersonation, and fake social media accounts.

Can technology be used to create a more consistent risk assessment?

Technology can make forces more defensible based on data and statistics, and can give forces the evidence needed to take specific action. However, it is important to make sure that any technology adopted, adequate training is provided to officers so the technology can be utilised to its full potential but also, relating to incidents of domestic abuse, it is about training that officer to understand the difficult position the victim is in.

Machine learning with relevant datasets can standardize, remove bias, and can particularly support the ‘new’ officer to respond to an incident of domestic abuse and assess vulnerability. Fundamentally however, the decision has to be human-centric with the technology to support that decision-making. With this, training is vital. Built correctly, managed correctly this type of technology can have significant impact as long as it is built with the end user in mind. Technology must be adopted to compliment and make decision making easier.

Georgina Henley

Georgina Henley

Programme Manager, Justice and Emergency Services, techUK

Georgie joined techUK as the Justice and Emergency Services Programme Manager in March 2020.

Georgie is dedicated to representing suppliers by creating a voice for those who are selling into blue lights and the justice system, but also by helping them in navigating this market. Georgie is committed to creating a platform for collaboration, from engaging with industry and stakeholders to understand the latest innovations, to the role tech can play in responding to a range of issues our justice and emergency services are facing 

Prior to joining techUK, Georgie managed a Business Crime Reduction Partnership (BCRP) in Westminster. She worked closely with the Metropolitan Police and London borough councils to prevent and reduce the impact of crime on the business community. Her work ranged from the impact of low-level street crime and anti-social behaviour on the borough, to critical incidents and violent crime.

[email protected]

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