The power of collaboration: Technology’s role in tackling the challenges of VAWG and RASSO

At last month’s Police Digital Summit in the UK, a panel of police, tech specialists and criminal justice stakeholders discussed how technology could help to meet the challenges of rape and serious sexual offences, and violence against women and girls; techUK’s Georgie Henley, who chaired the panel, highlights some of the key points from the discussion, and the collaborative approaches that can ensure improved responses in the future.

If you attended the Police Digital Summit and asked a question to the panel via slido, please scroll down to the bottom of the insight for the panel responses.

techUK’s Justice and Emergency Services (JES) Programme is one of 21 programmes run by the association, and aims to champion the role of technology in the delivery of justice and public safety services. As Head of the JES programme I work closely with over 300 of these 850 members, blue light and justice stakeholders to understand how technology can help overcome the challenges facing the sector, unlock innovation and improve public and private sector collaboration.

My aim is to create strong relationships between members and public sector customers, and to act as a critical friend while on their digital transformation journeys.

I was recently asked by the Police Digital Service (PDS) to organise a panel of subject matter experts to speak at their annual Police Digital Summit on the topic of technology and its role in addressing challenges surrounding the investigation and prosecution of rape and serious sexual offences (RASSO) and violence against women and girls (VAWG).

With significant efforts to combat both VAWG and RASSO, I jumped at the opportunity to showcase the work of the tech sector to respond to these challenges, and the role of technology in streamlining processes and delivering justice for victims; more needs to be done, and we all have a part to play.

The panel – How can technology address the challenges of Rape and Serious Sexual Offences (RASSO) and Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) – included representatives from the Forensic Capability Network (FCN), PDS, Home Office and the VAWG Taskforce.

Problem statements and priorities surrounding RASSO and VAWG

VAWG and RASSO have been brought into sharp focus by a number of recent tragic and high-profile cases, especially the abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard in March 2021. With this, the Government and its agencies have faced some tough questions around their promised reforms.

The End-to-End Rape Review published in June 2021 sets out the Government’s action plan for improving the criminal justice system’s (CJS) response to rape in England and Wales, looking at evidence across the system including those cases leading to a charge, prosecution and conviction.

“As digital-based crime has increased, particularly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the greater reliance on technology, so too has the volume of evidence, from CCTV footage and social media data to information stored on mobile devices"

Following on from the Review, a Ministerial Technology Summit was held, hosted by the Home Office and Ministry of Justice in December 2021. This brought together industry and CJS partners to discuss innovative technology solutions and how to build lasting partnerships. Three key promises came from this event:

  • Enhancing force capabilities – build frontline policing capability in local forces through piloting of existing technology solutions.

  • Generating new innovation – identify new and innovative technology solutions, with development through pilots where appropriate.

  • RASSO Technology Partnership Board Proposal (sustaining industry-CJS collaboration) – establish long-term, sustainable relationships with industry and CJS partners to ensure policing is a fast follower of innovation.

So, what are the technology challenges for the investigation of RASSO and VAWG, and what did our panel have to say?

In short, a lot. With only half an hour on the clock it was not possible to cover all the work going on in this space, but as a snapshot, here are some of the challenges our panel highlighted:

  • Providing an effective service and delivering justice for victims.

  • The ability to extract data from both physical devices and the online world.

  • Harnessing the data so it can be used and shared effectively – while ensuring those who need the data understand what it actually means.

  • With 43 police forces comes 43 different ways of doing things.

  • How to use pursue perpetrators and create safer spaces physically and online.

As one panel member noted: “Rather than policing saying, ‘this is what we want’, we are saying, ‘these are the challenges and, with your innovative brains – what are the solutions?’.”

Technology has the ability to provide police with new solutions to prevent crime, but it also provides suspects with new tools to commit crime. And as digital-based crime has increased, particularly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the greater reliance on technology, so too has the volume of evidence, from CCTV footage and social media data to information stored on mobile devices.

Rather than just ‘evidence’ we now have ‘digital evidence’ – and a lot of it. We need new ways for evidence to be used, managed and shared efficiently, effectively, ethically and securely, from policing into the Crown Prosecution Service, courts and the defence to deliver justice for victims.

VAWG and the tech sector

We heard at the Police Digital Summit that a VAWG Digital Strategy Intent (DSI) is due to be published shortly, highlighting the digital direction for policing, commonalities forces are struggling with, and what victims are telling policing relating to crimes of VAWG.

One element of the DSI will be to explore the responsibility of all organisations to ensure they develop an ‘upstander not bystander’ culture. It’s a key message, and one that every organisation across every sector should consider.

Included in this, we will see the need for better data exploitation to understand the breadth and depth of VAWG across the UK, with a specific call to action on how to extrapolate data.

Collaborative working with the tech sector here is vital; the panel acknowledged that the interface between police and the public needs to improve, with a move away from traditional methods to, for example, an online platform.

New technologies, ideas, methods and ways of working have brought significant changes to policing. Equipping forces with the digital tools they need to combat VAWG is key, but we must ensure we have a competent and confident frontline. With a large workforce, forces need to ensure they make use of technology to the best of their ability and adequate training is essential.

So with the DSI due to be published soon, what can the tech sector do to support the strategy?

We need to see an improvement in the interface between policing and the public, to enable victims to report easily and to access the support they need. We must develop that competent and confident workforce, exploiting data and harnessing the power of technology. And we must make online environments hostile for perpetrators.

We all have a part to play, and one element of the DSI will be to explore the responsibility of all organisations to ensure they develop an ‘upstander not bystander’ culture. It’s a key message, and one that every organisation across every sector should consider.

Justice for victims

Operation Soteria was launched as a response to the Government’s End-to-End Rape Review, and the Home Office’s pledge to increase the number of rape cases making it to court.

“It was made clear that we need to think more about how to improve the quality of data, to improve confidence for both investigators and victims as well as those frontline police officers acting on this data".

The demand for a police response has primarily been led by victims who have been bringing their experiences to police attention. The response was first trialled as Avon & Somerset Police’s Project Bluestone, which aimed to build a national operating model for RASSO investigations.

These suspect-focused investigations aim to streamline the processes of extracting the evidence and data needed for court, particularly the data extraction from mobile devices, which can be a distressing and intrusive process for the victim.

There is a vast amount of information available that needs to be harnessed and gathered safely and not intrusively. This data then needs to be sifted and blended with other sources, which can be both time-consuming and hugely challenging for investigators.

Another comment from the panel was that: “When it comes to forensics, we need to think about standardisation.” There are lots of methods being used for lots of data, and it was made clear that we need to think more about how to improve the quality of this data, to improve confidence for both investigators and victims as well as those frontline police officers acting on this data.

The importance of data quality, data standards and interoperability were key themes running throughout the Police Digital Summit, and have the ability to make significant time savings, taking a targeted approach and making better use of the workforce.

“We want an offender-focused investigation, but a victim-centred approach,” added one member of the panel. “Engagement must be victim centred and we need to ask how we can ensure we reduce attrition, increase engagement and use tech to support investigations?”

Improved collaborative working

At the launch of is Transforming Forensics project to improve the response to RASSO, the FCN stated: “The aim is to ultimately deliver a faster, safer and more sensitive service for those affected by RASSO and other crimes, better evidence entering courts, and increased confidence in the criminal justice system.” So how can collaboration help us to deliver this aim?

“With improved collaborative working there are opportunities to share learnings and challenges across forces, bringing things together under one banner to understand what technologies, solutions and approaches are working well, and what aren’t".

Sharing learning and breaking down siloed working is vital. It may be easier said than done, but a great example of this is the joint working between the FCN, Home Office, PDS and techUK on RASSO, feeding into the aforementioned Technology Partnership Board.

This board enables industry and key actors from across the CJS to come together, co-ordinate and align on priorities for technology adoption.

Also, with the launch of the VAWG DSI and its similar strategic objectives and challenges to RASSO, we can see this work being brought together under one umbrella, with both areas of work committed to working with the technology sector and partners to achieve similar desired outcomes.

A huge challenge is having 43 different police forces, 43 different ways of innovation and 43 different ways of testing things. With improved collaborative working across both VAWG and RASSO, there are opportunities to share learnings and challenges across forces, bringing things together under one banner to understand what technologies, solutions and approaches are working well, and what aren’t.

Driving innovation

Early market engagement with suppliers – particularly small and medium enterprises – is essential, and policing needs to change the way it relates to industry.

Changes are happening – and this can be seen with the introduction of the RASSO Technology Partnership Board and the VAWG Taskforce engagement via techUK surrounding its DSI.

This indicates an awareness from policing to ensure the tech sector is part of the conversation, and promotes a two-way dialog.

Looking ahead

As the Police Digital Summit panel discussion came to a close, the panellists reflected on what needs to change and the key improvements needed for the future for policing’s response and investigation of RASSO and VAWG. These included:

Providing the digital tools and services to support victims and police in their investigations is an essential step towards enabling a faster, safer and more sensitive service for victims.

  • An operating model for investigating RASSO and VAWG which sets out forces’ capabilities. We need to find what digital technology we are bringing together, and deliver it to forces effectively. With 43 police forces that have differing priorities, we need to build the capability that suits their needs.

  • A confident and skilled workforce where officers can draw on forensic experts and data scientists as required to progress a case, with the ability to draw on different intelligence from different sources.

  • A ‘whole system’ way of working which brings technology, data and forensics together to understand what we need them to do in this process (designing the forensic requirements is the first step).

  • For women to live without fear, in a ‘call it out’ culture; in relation to VAWG, we must work together to create safer online spaces, and digital platforms which reassure victims that services are there to support them.

Alongside these improvements, the panel also identified the most important elements of technology’s role in helping to deliver a more effective approach to VAWG and RASSO:

  • Building public confidence in the CJS is vital if we are to tackle RASSO cases effectively.

  • Victims must be able to report abuse with confidence.

  • Multi-agency collaboration can ensure an effective, fair and respectful end-to-end criminal justice system.

  • Providing the digital tools and services to support victims and police in their investigations is an essential step towards enabling a faster, safer and more sensitive service for victims.

At the Police Digital Summit, a number of questions were submitted which the panel did not have time to answer. Instead, the questions have been answered below:

Q. Do we need a digital EEK ? Officers know how to manage wet forensics- how do we get them to feel as comfortable with digital forensics ? 

A. College of Policing have developed a CyberDigiTools App that puts digital and cyber information in the pocket of front line officers. Uses the same knowledge Hub information as Op Modify. The College curates and updates content.

A. The standardisation and configuration of front line digital tools allows trained officers to access early digital evidence and deliver more timely and focused investigations. There’s much future development work to do in this space to ensure officers can use better technology, with quality built in, in front line situations, to quickly investigate crime and reduce harm.

A. The new Digital Forensics Programme will work closely with the College of Policing to establish enduring capabilities such as skills and knowledge for frontline officers – recovery and use of digital evidence needs to become routine for all investigations.

Q. How do we make sure Vawg remains a policing priority after whatever crisis comes next?

A. Albeit the DF Programme has an emphasis in for example VAWG & RASSO, the capabilities we are considering are crime agnostic and so will support performance and quality of delivery improvements across the board. In Forensics we are very used to shifting priorities and seeking enduring capabilities; so under the bonnet if you like, we are always thinking of whole system improvements and scaling those better capabilities. The greatest challenge in DF is the pace of change, scale and demand, so wider industry and academic collaborations coupled with sustained investment are critical to our success. The 3 year programme of government investment is really pleasing and will assist with priming and incentivising all parties to transform and make similar investments.

Q. An M365 RASSO use case has struggled to get traction due to concerns from CPS around data security. They appear out of step with national data strategies - why? 

A.PDS has engaged with CPS to develop a strategy to improve connectivity between police and CPS to enable more effective progression of RASSO and other cases; this will see exploitation of M365 capabilities to progress Early Investigative Advice and Case Conferences. The Digital Case File will replace action plans as part of the new business process so again will improve joint working

Q. Is further investment needed to ensure that the wealth of digital evidence obtained can be presented effectively to Judges and Jury panels? 

A. Advancements in Digital Forensics (DF) supports better presentation and streamlining of evidential reporting, better and earlier case management. This can assist the courts in early issue and dispute identification rather than all those technical arguments being heard in court. Experts on both sides can ensure that only real issues are brought to the attention of the court.

A. The Digital Evidence Project is currently working with ACE to progress better solutions for the analysis and presentation of digital evidence

Q. Tech is only part of the solution. How do we ensure people are competent and confident in it’s use so resulting data is accurate, consistent and usable? 

A.Workforce development is one of the 6 strands in the DF Science Strategy. The College lead on this strand. They are currently working on a new DF curriculum and have created a series of role profiles and competencies for DF practitioners. These are currently in the final stage of consultation with the community.

A.The training and competence of practitioners is also a core element of embedding quality and compliance with legislation.

Q. Should we consider ourselves digitally successful when for all the investment we have not succeeded in improving rape case convictions beyond 2%? 

A.There is much more investment to be made in improved digital capabilities. We need to exploit better extraction, processing and analysis capabilities to support improving rape and other investigations and resulting prosecutions.

A.The planned DF programme looks to prioritise selective extraction, automation and validation to complement a whole system approach to digital transformation.

Q. How do we ratify policing ambitions in this area when the CPS (& other CJ agencies) are working on dated, national systems & policies that hinder innovation?

A. The CPS have invested in their CMS Platform and continue to do so with the Digital Case File and interfaces into the HMCTS Common Platform.

Op Soteria / Project Bluestone are working with CPS colleagues to develop a new investigative model; pillar 6 of this work will inform a digital operating model for policing that enables better collaborative working with CPS.

Q. What work is being done to bring the CPS on the digital journey with us to aid in the prosecution? To what extent do issues around data sharing between agencies continue to hamper investigations and do we need legislative change? 

A. Data sharing with the CPS is always complex given the sensitivity of the data and responsibilities to manage the risk – We are developing Digital Evidence Sharing Standards to enable effective sharing of multi-media evidence and completing a discovery on CJS data sharing for RASSO that will enable HMCTS / CPS and Police data to be combined end-to end.

Q. Will the new act (along with ISO), enable progress in terms of management of data, or make compliance harder? A cynical question I know but we are at risk! 

A.We need to be smarter in designing quality into both DF method and technology product development.

The new Act provides opportunities to better define and understand forensic science activities whilst supporting continuous improvement and integrity.

Transforming Forensics have written and published new guidance for data management for police forces to adopt and support compliance and future technology development.

Q. How are the lessons from the CSE Automate work in TF (55% faster, 9.5rs saved per case) being taken forward in the new programme? 

A. The lessons learnt have been packaged up by the TF DF project and remaining team to inform planning and delivery in the new programme

A. Automation is a priority project area for the new programme and the learning from each of the ‘CSE Automat’e placements will aid the design of future work.

Q. How are police forces responding to the shift towards digital channels and what online services help protect the public and report crime? 

A.Single Online Home is currently live in over 30 forces with new forces onboarding throughout this year. SOH has a range of online reporting services that are relevant to VAWG – DA reporting, Rape and Sexual Assault reporting, Claire’s Law and Sarah’s Law applications are all available. The SOH team are currently reviewing VAWG opportunities to add new online options for reporting or accessing services. There is an opportunity to SOH forces to adopt all these services, and for new forces to onboard to SOH.

Q. Lots about what tech can do support investigations; what can data and tech do to prevent vawg / rasso reducing the number of victims & investigations required? 

A.Better knowledge and technology can drive up earlier intervention in cases and prevent further offences and victimisation. There is good evidence from our work with the Home Office that the impact of earlier DF examinations for example increases evidence of crimes having occurred, increases earlier admissions and brings those perpetrators to justice sooner.

A. Operation Soteria / Project Bluestone have a focus on suspect identification and reducing repeat offending; technology solutions brought forward by the ACE Impact Lab has shown how this can be supported

Q. Forces are facing a financial challenge to process and store increasing digital evidence, is there an element of the DF programme that will consider funding? 

A.The DF Programme is designed to support delivery of the DF Science Strategy, that include data management as a priority area of interest. Over and above, selective extraction and examination, automation and validation, the programme is looking to identify how can such capabilities be enduring i.e. what national capabilities can support sustained delivery improvement locally. The exact detail of that work will need working up once the programme is commenced. The early cloud work in ‘CSE Automate’ may well be part of those considerations.

A. The DF Programme will enable strategies / delivery plans to be drafted for the key elements of DF; These will be used to enable NPCC Leads to seek funding opportunities going forward and target investment to the most impactive capabilities.

If you would like to learn more about techUK and, in particular its work across the justice and emergency services space, please contact Georgie Henley, Head of Justice & Emergency Services at techUK.

Georgie Morgan

Georgie Morgan

Head of Justice and Emergency Services, techUK

Georgie joined techUK as the Justice and Emergency Services (JES) Programme Manager in March 2020, then becoming Head of Programme in January 2022.

Georgie leads techUK's engagement and activity across our blue light and criminal justice services, engaging with industry and stakeholders to unlock innovation, problem solve, future gaze and highlight the vital role technology plays in the delivery of critical public safety and justice services. The JES programme represents suppliers by creating a voice for those who are selling or looking to break into and navigate the blue light and criminal justice markets.

Prior to joining techUK, Georgie spent 4 and a half years managing 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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