Authorized police officers in Peshawar are now able to check details on vehicle registration on the fly by using a car’s license plate number and a cellular connection, as the Express Tribune Reports.

This is an incredibly smart use of cell phones and government data. As the report notes, in only a few months the system has helped recover 6 stolen vehicles. And hopes further to help combat militant attacks.

But instead of praise, the Express Tribune headlines this article:

Big Brother is watching: Your data, now at the fingertips of police

It then starts as follows:

PESHAWAR: As you zip through the crowded corridors of the provincial capital, bear in mind you are under constant surveillance of Peshawar Traffic police and they have plausibly everything they need to know about you.

The very next paragraph contradicts this by clarifying what they really know:

Experts sitting at the traffic police headquarters are just a click away from reviewing the registration and specification data of any vehicle en route in any nook or corner of the province. The data has also been made available to officers on duty at pickets, checkpoints and check posts punctuating the roads of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

I think the ISI snooping on phone calls and internet communications is an actual problem. This, is not.

Unfortunately, there are no real details on the actual technology. But I’m assuming registration data and criminal records for all vehicles available have been collected into a central database, that police officers can query by SMSing the license plate number to a special phone number. From here they likely get all the details they need in a predefined format via an SMS reply.

This is not a technologically ingenious system by today’s standards. In the sense that there is no real innovative technology here. It’s just a database query, connected to an SMS connection with hopefully some smart language processing.

But the real takeaway here is that software does not need to be ingenious to be useful. A huge number of problems can be solved by a centralized database and smart ways to access the data. Think of the tool in Pakistan that let’s you check what SIM cards are associated with your NIC. Incredibly useful, really simple. Kenya’s a great example of such systems being put to great use, and high literacy (when compared to Pakistan at least) greatly helps the use of SMS interfaces to get data.

Governments are sitting on massive amounts of data that is in unusable forms. Small projects like these can make that data available, actionable, and valuable.

Good ideas can do without the Express Tribune’s melodrama.