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After following my own feet around Europe for a six weeks, I’ve cobbled together some ideas that we might be able to make good use of.
So, after six weeks in Europe, I return home with a few random observations and ideas.
On the last day we were in Holland, my mother got a phone call. It lasted about 30 seconds and told her that an elderly man had disappeared from his nursing home. His name was Bernard, he was 82 years old and wearing a blue sweater over short black pants. In his room, his carers had found a set of false teeth still in a glass by the bed. The information also included the location of the nursing home and the address of the nearest police station. The message asked my mother to keep an eye out for Bernard and let authorities know when she sighted him. Under an hour later, even before we got back from coffee, there was another call. Bernard had been found after three tip-offs by the public and was now safely back in his room. My mother was thanked for her watchfulness.
The project is called “Burgernet” (“Citizen Network”) and was thought up by a frustrated Dutch copper in 1993. The creator of the project, Jankees van Baardewijk, wondered why whenever something urgent happened (be it a crime, or somebody with dementia wandering off), police officers were on their own. Although there were many hundreds or thousands of citizens living in a neighbourhood, their local knowledge and extra eyes were not used in the course of a police action. Van Baardewijk asked himself if it would be possible to engage the public with the safety of their own locality, without putting them in danger or promoting a society where people were snooping on each other. After some planning, the first experiment started in May 2004. Whenever there was an emergency, the local police communication centre would decide whether it was possible and valuable to have citizens help them out. If there was enough information available, like a good description of the person, an alert would go out to participants’ phones. This way the so-called “golden hour” could be used, hopefully leading to a positive outcome.
Participants felt not only safer, but also more engaged with community, local government and law enforcement. They also considered themselves more empowered and happier with their own lives.
A newspaper article in the local media asked for 500 volunteers but 1,650 people put their names down. Not long afterwards, a 5-year-old went missing. It was not serious enough for an Amber Alert, which is typically used when a parent kidnaps a child in the course of a custody battle; this little girl had wandered off while playing in front of her house. Within half an hour, the Burgernet alert had found her and reunited her with her parents. In the year the experiment ran, calls went out for burglary, assault, car theft, hit-and-runs, break-ins, street violence, destruction of government property (some drunk students demolishing a lamp post) and lots of lost children and adults with mental problems or suffering from dementia. The interesting thing was that although it was often difficult to say if a civilian tip-off had led to a case being solved, something else was happening. Normal people were given the opportunity to become partially responsible for their own and their neighbourhood’s safety and they took to the challenge with gusto. 92 percent of the participants surveyed in 2010 were happy with the program and felt not only safer, but also more engaged with their local community, as well as local government and law enforcement. They also considered themselves more empowered and happier with their own lives. Last March, the final council in Holland signed itself up, which means that Burgernet is now active all over the country. 1.6 million people participated in 2015, responding to over 8,200 alerts. Of those, 750 were solved within the hour, 3,800 inside a day. Councils pay 50 cents per inhabitant a year for the first year, then 35 cents for the remainder of the project. Maybe an idea for Australia?
Italian premier Matteo Renzi has come up with a novel plan to fight terrorism. After last year’s attack on Paris, researchers found that young people in Italy were suddenly afraid to go out, scared that they would be blown up while listening to their favourite music. Dangerous, Renzi thought, and also un-Italian. So he decided on an inspirational move. Everybody who turns 18 this year, gets a €500 Euro “culture bonus”. All 574,953 teenagers born in 1998 who live in Italy (even if they don’t have the Italian nationality) will get the money, in the shape of vouchers or tickets to events. They can spend it until the end of 2017, preferably on concerts, museums or other outdoor culture. “We will answer their dream of terror with our cultural reality”, Renzi said. “They destroy thousand-year-old sculptures? We answer with our love of the arts. They burn books? We are the country of bookstores and famous libraries. This culture bonus is an investment in our Italian identity”.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Returning home to find it no longer so
- The government poets who eulogise the unknown dead
- All opposed: Is it time for citizens to shape policy?
No identity needed
I got talking at Hong Kong airport to somebody who implements healthcare software around the world. She was born in Singapore, but now lives in Texas. Her two daughters are at university; one in Amsterdam, one in Washington. Her parents, who came with her when the family moved to Sydney 12 years ago, have elected to stay. She is on the road half the year, cherishing a clock that tells her where she is at all latitudes. More than 25 years ago, before the children were born, she worked to get Ross Perot elected. She believed in a third way for American politics and, being Singaporean, admired the self-made “fastest, richest” image of the man.
Now all the travelling and the living abroad has taken the shine off the latter, and in a broader sense: she yearns for a less binary world. Being a woman and “Asian – whatever that is”, has made her an outsider everywhere, she says. Even in Asia. One day she woke up and wondered why. And whether it really mattered who and where she was or what she looked like. From an intellectual appreciation of the “we’re all just human beings” adage, she suddenly felt it. The ridiculousness of it, she means. Her girls have three passports at their disposal and are a little of everything. The younger one, who is in medical school in Amsterdam, spends her time off with weekends in Rome and Krakow, without even considering that “abroad”. It is not that the world is a small place. You know that is bull after you’ve been cooped up in a plane for 11 hours, with another 11 to go. It is just that this is who we are at present: travellers, meeting over coffee or noodles at an airport, somewhere, briefly. No-man’s land. No identity needed. Or even available.