Keeping the public safe and informed in the event of disaster

In Project ATHENA, police have designed a way to use powerful SAS analytics to rapidly build situational awareness and respond fast to emerging crises

When crisis strikes, it is up to emergency services to keep citizens safe. Jessica Gibson, Project Manager, West Yorkshire for Innovation at West Yorkshire Police, explains: “To respond effectively to a crisis, it’s essential that emergency services assess the situation to understand what they are dealing with.

“We currently rely on citizens phoning the 999 service and relaying as much information as possible to the agent, who keys the intelligence into the system, reports the incident to the relevant department, reassures the caller and instructs them on what to do next. The process is labour-intensive, and insight into the crisis hinges on the witness’ ability to recall details.”

“Since the public are first on the scene at the outbreak of a crisis, we wanted to make it easier for citizens to provide detailed, accurate incident reports, so that we can build better-quality situational awareness faster. In parallel, we wanted to take advantage of additional information in the public domain to ensure we capture all relevant facts.”

Thanks to the excellent technology and proactive team from SAS, we have designed a promising prototype that would help emergency services rapidly assess and combat threats to the public, helping to keep citizens safe.

Jessica Gibson
Project Manager, West Yorkshire for Innovation at West Yorkshire Police

Joining forces

In Project ATHENA, the West Yorkshire Police teamed up with Sheffield Hallam University, SAS and other consortium partners from the public sector, business and academia to design a revolutionary approach to help emergency services better manage crises. The project has received funding from European Union Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development from 2013 to 2016.

The ATHENA consortium delivered a mobile app that enables citizens to alert emergency services to incidents by submitting written reports, which are analysed by SAS Text Miner. Using sentiment analysis, police can determine the urgency of the incident and whether citizens feel safe or afraid. To augment their reports, citizens can upload pictures, audio recordings and video footage or even stream it in real time – giving emergency services a clear picture of the incident as it unfolds. A map-based interface helps employees in the central command centre to visualise the information as it arrives.

Once a crisis is identified, police officers input relevant information into the SAS Information Retrieval Studio, which scans it for relevant details. As reports flow in from the mobile app, SAS Content Categorization detects whether the information concerns a new or existing incident, and classifies it accordingly.

Babak Akhgar, Professor of Informatics and Director of the Centre of Excellence in Terrorism, Resilience, Intelligence and Organised Crime Research (CENTRIC) at Sheffield Hallam University, remarks: “The SAS solutions enable us to sift through enormous quantities of data extremely quickly, so we can cut through the noise to the critical facts. Quickly capturing all information relevant to a specific incident will help emergency services build situational awareness rapidly.

“By enabling citizens to submit pictures, audio and video footage alongside written reports, we can give emergency services personnel an accurate, highly detailed understanding of an incident. This information helps them make better decisions about how to respond, and send the right resources from the outset.”

Spotlight on citizen safety

As the incident unfolds, police distribute information and advice en masse and by sending targeted warnings to app users in the vicinity. If appropriate, police ask citizens to report any sightings of suspects or vulnerable people – engaging in a productive two-way dialogue with the public to foster closer collaboration.

Simon Andrews, Professor of Conceptual Structures in Computer Science at Sheffield Hallam University, continues: “As officers react to the incident, police harness information from the solution to gauge the public’s perception of how well emergency services are responding to the threat, using sentiment analysis to determine whether citizens feel safe. Equipped with this insight, emergency services can improve decision-making on-the-fly as they attempt to defuse the situation, as well as identify strengths and pinpoint areas for improvement after the event.”

Putting plans into action

Putting the ATHENA approach and technology to the test, the consortium enacted a broad range of possible real-life scenarios – including fights between rival gangs, a chemical weapons attack, and vulnerable people going missing – at a West Yorkshire Police facility in Wakefield. The Wakefield site comprises a simulated town where public order officers undergo training.

Jessica Gibson explains: “We asked volunteers to download and look at the ATHENA app before the Wakefield exercise, but we avoided giving them any further information because we wanted to see how citizens would use the app in practice. As threats became apparent, the volunteers playing citizens quickly reported incidents and suspicious activity via the ATHENA app, in some cases supplying video and photographic evidence.

“In the test scenario, the commanding officer received excellent intelligence about events unfolding on the ground, so he dispatched officers much faster than we originally anticipated, helping us rapidly restore order.”

In addition to the Wakefield exercise, the ATHENA consortium tested the ATHENA app’s effectiveness in helping emergency services deal with a simulated earthquake in Turkey, as well as a mass casualty exercise and a mudslide exercise in Slovenia – with similarly promising results.

Ultimately, the prototype ATHENA solution shows massive potential to help emergency services keep citizens safe in the event of a crisis. If deployed in day-to-day operations, ATHENA lays the foundation for the police, fire brigade and ambulance service to share intelligence and synchronise their responses to an incident. This approach would help to reduce risks to citizen safety and lower the total cost of managing a crisis.

Jessica Gibson concludes: “Thanks to the excellent technology and proactive team from SAS, we have designed a promising prototype that would help emergency services rapidly assess and combat threats to the public, helping to keep citizens safe.”

West Yorkshire Police logo


When disaster strikes, every second counts. To protect citizens, emergency services must assess new threats quickly and accurately to deliver a rapid, co-ordinated and effective response.


SAS® Enterprise Content Categorization
SAS Information Retrieval Studio
SAS Text Miner


  • Enables emergency services to build situational awareness rapidly, driving a faster response.
  • Deepens insight into ongoing incidents, helping emergency services co-ordinate their activities to keep the public safe.
  • Facilitates closer collaboration between police and citizens in crisis scenarios
The results illustrated in this article are specific to the particular situations, business models, data input, and computing environments described herein. Each SAS customer’s experience is unique based on business and technical variables and all statements must be considered non-typical. Actual savings, results, and performance characteristics will vary depending on individual customer configurations and conditions. SAS does not guarantee or represent that every customer will achieve similar results. The only warranties for SAS products and services are those that are set forth in the express warranty statements in the written agreement for such products and services. Nothing herein should be construed as constituting an additional warranty. Customers have shared their successes with SAS as part of an agreed-upon contractual exchange or project success summarization following a successful implementation of SAS software. Brand and product names are trademarks of their respective companies.

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