A kid's game, sometimes called "Concentration," is a test of a player's memory. With a set of cards dealt face-down on a table, players take turns picking up two cards, hoping to find they are of the same value. If they don't match, the cards are returned to the table face-down. The challenge is to remember the location and value of the cards you or the other players pick up so in subsequent turns you're able to match them up. The player with the most pairs wins.

Without proper investigation tools, police and law enforcement agencies may find themselves unwillingly playing their own game of "Concentration" as they wade through mountains of information available online. This is more true when investigating possible narcotics offenders. By its very nature, drug trafficking involves some organization -- transportation, distribution and sales "channels" -- all of which try to keep themselves hidden. Investigating such organizations may require correlating apparently unrelated information and finding submerged links between people and organizations. The growing amount of online data could make this work easier if access to it was automated.

St. Petersburg

Florida's St. Petersburg Police Dept. had more online data than could be known or effectively used by detectives in the course of doing routine investigations.

"We had 10 years of data in a fairly sophisticated database, and we could extract fields and look up data," said Leonard Leedy, a vice and narcotics detective with the St. Petersburg Police Dept. "We have also been sharing data with the Pinellas County Sheriff's office for 4 to 5 years. What we've been unable to do is extract information from the narratives of our reports."

Under the department's system, officers enter basic information about an incident into an online form. This form includes such things as the names of involved parties, the time of the incident, etc. What officers do not type themselves are the narrative descriptions of the incident. Instead, they dictate the narratives, which are later transcribed. This method saves officers time and has proven a much more cost-efficient division of work. When the narratives are later transcribed, they are electronically associated with the basic data entered by the detectives. Although the narrative data has technically always been available online, the existing software couldn't search the narratives, let alone do sophisticated data mining to help identify links.

CTAC

Development of a system to access narrative data began a couple of years ago when representatives of the federal Counterdrug Technology Assessment Center (CTAC) approached the department. CTAC falls under the Office of National Drug Control Policy and is the "central counterdrug enforcement research and development organization of the U.S. government."

"CTAC ... said they were interested in a project involving sharing of data and technology," said Leedy. "They sat 30 narcotics detectives down and asked them, 'If you wanted to have a computer that could do anything, what would it be?'"

Following the initial meetings, the University of Tennessee got involved to do the application development. Rather than suggesting theoretical solutions from afar, the university took the time to really find out what was needed.

"The university sent people down and they rode along with us to get a feeling for what life was really like," commented Leedy. "They came down and listened to us and the applications were developed based on the voiced needs of the working detectives"

This development style is well known to CTAC's chief scientist and director, Albert E. Brandenstein. "I did a lot of command and control development with ARPA [now DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] and other places," said Brandenstein. "Those kinds of projects are measured by hands-on success from the very beginning. You can't go away and develop for three years -- it's a matter of how the users like data presented to

David Aden  | 
David Aden DAden@webworldtech.com is a writer from Washington, D.C.