Beyond bulldogs and burglar alarms

Necessity breeds innovation, but can local tech help beat criminals at their own game?

by | Dec 9

7 min read

South Africa is often ranked among the world’s most dangerous countries, yet according to data released by Stats SA in August, only about seven percent of households can afford the services of private security companies.

From a sample of 27 000 households, 22% said they trust the police enough to protect them; 27% feel there’s nothing they can do about protecting themselves and take no security measures, while 17% said they don’t have the money to take security measures.

Technology may have some solutions to offer.

In 2012, after her sister was assaulted during a house robbery in Thembisa and couldn’t get any help, Thuli Mthethwa decided to leave her job as a software developer for the Department of Transport to research personal security solutions for those in low-income areas. This led her to create a mobile panic button, the MeMeZa Personal Safety Alarm.

Mthethwa pitched the idea of the personal alarm (a keyring with an alarm that can be triggered by pulling a pin) to The Innovation Hub in Tshwane, forming a partnership that’s helped get the personal alarm and other Me- MeZa products to many vulnerable communities through the Memeza Women Empowerment Project.

Speaking at the alarm’s launch in 2014, Mthethwa said: “Studies show that criminals are more afraid of crime prevention measures at community level than prosecution measures at state level. They’re more afraid of bulldogs and burglar alarms than they are of the promise of a lengthy prison sentence.”

MeMeZa (which means ‘shout’ in isiZulu) has built strong ties with public sector security stakeholders, including the South African Police Service and the Department of Social Development, among others.

Says MeMeZa’s COO and acting CEO Elmarie Pereira: “SAPS in the Honeydew (policing) cluster approached The Innovation Hub looking for a community-based tech solution to help fight crime in Diepsloot. We’ve been working to roll out our pay-as-you-go community alarm in high-crime areas around the country since.”

The community alarm is a kit comprising a transformer, a strobe light and a remote that can trigger a silent alarm.

The partnerships also led to the expansion of MeMeZa’s product range to include a pendant tracker and MeMeCam, a webcam solution that allows users to remotely monitor their homes.

Each community alarm system is programmed to send SMSes to the crime prevention unit in the local police station (it sends the street name and number, subscriber’s name and type of emergency), community policing forum and other safety officers in the area. The siren can also be triggered and an emergency strobe light fitted outside the house flashes to help responders locate it. The alarm uses data to stay online, so it needs a monthly top-up of around R99. For the poorest users, the alarm is zero-rated, thanks to MeMeZa’s relationship with Vodacom.

Susan Phasha, a Diepsloot resident using the community alarm system, says she feels much safer since having it installed. She says thieves have stopped trying to break in because they know about the alarms. “ We sleep better now; if anything happens, I just press the button and the police are alerted.” Since its introduction in Diepsloot in 2012, the police’s response time has been cut to 12 minutes and the station’s reported a nine percent reduction in murder cases, while sexual offences have dropped by 67%.

MeMeZa has won multiple awards for its solution, including Google’s Impact Challenge People’s Choice award and, most recently, the 2020/21 Crime Prevention Service of the Year from The Corporate Livewire South Africa Prestige Awards.

In a previous interview, Mthethwa said one area in the North West has seen a 100% crime reduction. “The initiative will work very well where you have active police, an active CPF, and a community that contributes to fighting crime.”

Pre-crime

For Warren Myers, CEO and co-founder of Aura, an emergency response Security-as-a- Service platform, nothing compares to predictability in the fight against crime.

When it was founded in 2017, Aura aimed to disrupt the private security industry that still relied on outdated tech, such as radio and telephony.

South Africa’s unbalanced demand and supply in the local private security sector was also a factor in creating the platform – there are a round 7 000 private response vehicles across the country. According to Myers, these vehicles are only in service five percent of the time; the rest of the time, they’re idle. Aura has now embedded technology into various security companies’ patrol cars and control rooms, enabling them to rely solely on machine- to-machine dispatch in the event of an emergency.

“We’d noticed that there’s tons of supply – you see many of these security companies patrolling, but most South Africans can’t afford their services. We saw an opportunity for shared value where the industry could be democratised and the security companies could make more money,” says Myers. Aura pays the security companies for monthly ‘bundles’ of responses. The system works in a similar fashion to e-hailing services. When someone presses the panic button, the nearest responder is dispatched and is shown the quickest route to the callout.

There are currently 260 security companies on the platform. One of the ways the partnership has helped the security companies is by enabling them to give a response ETA (averaging about four minutes) and being able to track responders.

“Responders are human too, you know, so sometimes they’d be afraid and take the long way around to a callout,” says Myers.

Aura is Myers’ second venture in personal security. The first was Myertal, a CCTV startup that used AI to identify abnormal or threatening situations. He says while the company grew, and its algorithm learned to pick up suspicious activity, ‘it took forever to get a response from the police and private security companies’.

He adds: “In a lot of cases we respond to as Aura, our partners can’t arrest anyone so they still have to call the police. We’d love to get them on board.”

Brainstorm visited Aura’s control room to get a better sense of its operations. Agents in the room use multiple monitors to track footage and respond to situations that need human intervention.

Aura’s COO Ryan Green simulated an emergency (Aura allows users to test the system). When the panic button is pressed, the nearest responder confirms that they’re on the way and every step thereafter is tracked to ensure all the correct procedures are followed (Which responder accepted the callout? Did they arrive? How long did it take them to get there?). Once a responder is close enough to the victim’s location, the software syncs their locations to reflect that the responder has arrived. Green says this tracking helps build a timeline of each callout, creating transparency between Aura and its partners.

Predictability

One of each agent’s monitors is dedicated to Uber emergencies; when Uber drivers were attacked by meter taxi drivers a few years ago, an SOS button was introduced to the Uber app, connecting drivers with emergency services. South Africa is the first country outside the US and Canada to introduce an in-app panic button. Riders and drivers can access it via Uber’s safety toolkit once a trip has started.

On the latest version of Namola (another of Aura’s partners), users can input their emergency type so the responder knows what to expect. “Making sure the responder has that kind of information helps them better prepare for whatever they’ll be dealing with,” says Green.

“We let them (the partners) decide how they want their app to look and what functions they want to include. We simply provide the API and ensure all the appropriate safety boxes are ticked.”

The company is working on integrating Google Maps further into its solution. The goal is to have responders who aren’t at a crime scene drive out to any potential exit points, cutting criminals off before they can escape.

Says Myers: “Using technology, we can create the greatest crime fighting weapon: predictability. This will move us beyond reactionary armed response, giving us a fighting chance against crime.”