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US cities in Web 2.0 battle against graffiti

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American cities have begun to wage war against graffiti artists using the latest consumer tech: namely, integrated digital photography and GPS platforms feeding into a central database run as an online service.

Graffiti Tracker, the company behind this initiative (motto: "every wall tells a story"), says on its website that graffiti is "a serious crime that requires the most intensive analysis and research, from beginning to end".

The idea is that municipal authorities snap pics of graffiti and upload it to the company's secure servers, with GPS location data automatically added. The central Graffiti Tracker operation then makes use of analysts with "rigorous training allowing them to look behind the spray paint", and also employs "satellite imaging" to work out "who the most active vandals are, or which gang members are associating with each other the most".

Harassed plods can then "attack the graffiti problem at its root and make arrests that send a zero-tolerance message". They can "see the path of damage behind each active vandal".

A lot of graffiti perps are so-called "taggers", who purposely identify themselves in their work. When a police force nabs one of these individuals, using the Tracker database they can potentially charge the spraypaint-loving miscreant with dozens or hundreds of offences rather than just one, and thus land them with a hefty spell up the river rather than a mere judicial wrist-slap.

Such tactics might not go down well in the UK with its bulging prisons, but in the States the authorities are more willing to hand out bird.

"It's a way to focus in on those vandals who really are creating a big problem through multiple acts over long periods of time that we haven't been able to get at, because at best, we only get him on one count," says Linda Benedetti-Leal, of the Paramount, California city government.

Graffiti Tracker president Tim Kephart said: "In the past, authorities had no way of keeping track of who was doing the damage in their city." He told Reuters today that 20 cities have signed up for his services in the last year alone, and expects to double that over the next 12 months.

Kephart has no truck with the idea that graffiti is an unimportant crime, or even a form of street art.

"Just because you have the talent and the ability to make it look really awesome, doesn't mean it's legal when you do it on someone else's property without their permission," he said.

And he claims to offer more than just a way to get heavy sentences for persistent daubers. Kephart is qualified in criminology, and he reckons that valuable intelligence on gangs can be gleaned from street scrawlings.

Kephart says there are several main kinds of gang graffiti, including publicity, territory-marking, threats, and memorials for dead members. His Flickr-like service can pull all this together for police or city officials, allowing them to look at a map with freshly-updated plots of nefarious activity.

It seems that the battle against crime may be about to go Web 2.0. Soon, no doubt, we'll all be able to use our GPS-enabled video smartphone to upload footage of people mugging us (and presumably stealing the phone) via 3G. Then the plods will swoop, using their networked in-car blag mashup, and track the villains using their van-launched electric stealth-choppers before zapping them harmlessly into submission with directed-lightning cattleprod blasters.

Great days, these, for tech lovers, though it remains to be seen whether things will actually improve on the societal-wellbeing front.

The Reuters report is here. ®

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