Two University of Nebraska at Omaha researchers will work with Sarpy County officials on a two-year project to improve reporting of suspicious activity.
Researchers Joel Elson, an assistant professor of IT Innovation, and Erin Kearns, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice, will develop and test a “chatbot” that can be used across Sarpy County and even nationwide.
They said people may not report concerning behavior to authority figures because they are reluctant to raise something to the level of police, because they don’t know how exactly to report something they might see that is strange or because people don’t know what behavior merits reporting.
“People are generally unlikely to want to pick up the phone and call,” Kearns said in a press release.
“They want a nonthreatening way to have a conversation around terrorism and targeted violence.”
The team will conduct a national survey about the barriers to reporting and processing tips and then use a chatbot, which is a computer program that simulates conversation, to improve services.
The chatting service is similar to artificial intelligence customer service at large retail store websites, Kearns said, that help gather and give information by asking preliminary screening questions before connecting the person with a representative.
“The whole goal of this is preventing a Columbine, a Parkland, a Virginia Tech,” Sarpy County Sheriff’s Capt. Kevin Griger said in a statement. “Those tips will help us better prevent acts of targeted violence and ultimately keep our 25,000 kids in Sarpy schools safer.”
The researchers are part of the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology and Education Center at UNO. They secured a $715,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
This is the first violence prevention grant won by NCITE, which connects more than 50 researchers at 18 academic institutions but is based at UNO.