Big data is nothing new in the investigative environment

Michael Akpata
June 28, 2017
By Michael Akpata
Big data is nothing new in the investigative environment
Photo: Getty Images
“Big Data” has multiple personal definitions for people across many spectrums. As investigators, whether frontline uniform officers or secondary investigative units, the proper collection, analysis, interpretation and sharing of this information is becoming more critical in all investigations.

As our world becomes more accepting and reliant on technology, its role in the investigative process has changed as well. Unfortunately, in some circumstances we have not moved as quickly as needed to make use of this information that streams into our investigator’s hands. If we take a moment to look at the amount of collectable information that exists because of these changes it can be seen how investigations have changed.

When I first started on the road as a uniform patrol officer in 1995, the peripheral information that existed around a specific first contact was minimal as compared to today. There were several things that were not in play. There were no Tweets, no Facebook Live, no bloggers and no streaming Wi-Fi cameras to consider as possible sources of evidence. In my best handwriting, I would record my witness statements on our carbonized four-copy report forms, and conduct my canvass.

It was rare other than in commercial spaces to hear people offer up security video, or to indicate that a device in their own possession may have captured the incident. The Polaroid camera would be dropped off, my evidentiary photo would be taken and I would complete my report and either leave it in my favourite expandable steel clipboard or fold it neatly and tuck it into the visor space above my head and go back into service. I myself was certainly not a data source. There was no GPS vehicle history, mobile data terminal logs, cellphone call history or in-car video to upload and disclose. A body-mounted camera was not even something that we considered. At the end of my shift,  I handed in my reports, completed my activity sheet and booked out  of service.

Today, the role that external sources of information play in investigations has grown substantially. First-arriving personnel play a pivotal role in discovering, securing and collecting this valuable evidence. Few of today’s investigations do not include some type of video evidence. The canvass for, and eventual discovery of these files, is almost expected.

The problems may begin with the discovery of these files themselves. A 16-camera multiplexer in a corner store or home surveillance system can provide critical information to assist the investigation, if the internal clock is accurately set, the cameras are all working, and the owner of the system knows how to download these images before the system follows the internal overwrite protocols. Once properly collected, this evidence must be reviewed, video summaries created, properly logged into evidence, copied, vetted, redacted and then disclosed.  

Depending on the investigation, it may be smart phone video taken at the scene and provided to investigators. It may be open source searches of posted pictures, or streamed videos from many social media platforms and various websites. Then there is always the evidence that comes into the hands of investigators as a result of a judicial authorization.

Almost every individual has in their possession a smart phone, fitness tracker, or some other device that far exceeds the memory, speed, storage and computing power of the mainframes that put the astronauts on the moon in 1969. Once lawful examination of these devices begins, the substantial amount of information that needs to be sifted through to find that nugget of corroborating information can become overwhelming. In investigations involving vehicles, the event data recorder or black box can be a rich resource capturing the last few seconds of an incident and storing it.

Personally owned in-car video systems can be purchased at corner stores and affixed to windshields to provide drivers with their own dash cams.  The dash-mounted GPS (depending on manufacturer) may be downloadable and provide a wealth of tracking and address data. Exchangeable image file (EXIF) and the geotagging ability lie embedded in photo files taken with many of our digital devices. The time, date, location, and other information is available using a number of readily accessible free data viewers.

Once all this information is logged, correlated and made available, the task of sifting through all of it may seem ominous. Various comprehensive solutions are available on the market to help navigate these digital waters, glean those priceless pieces of information, and bring them to the forefront. However, all this stuff that sometimes turns simple files into epic documents that rival War and Peace becomes useless without the most important component of any file. That being: the professional, competent, and focused individuals that continue to move these cases forward.

We have all worked with people that have an uncanny ability to recognize faces, remember birthdates, and within the blink of an eye identify the person in the video and pull their entire list of contacts from the RMS. The human factor is what created “Big Data” and it is the human factor that can crack it. One of the investigators that I had the privilege to work with was clear in her views of how to conduct investigations. Slow it down, take a breath, go one step at a time, and make sure you do the best possible job you can do.

The best technology, to interpret the mountains of evidence that is collected, is useless without the human eyes to see, understand and draw reasonable conclusions from what is provided. Investigators have always dealt with Big Data; it has simply changed forms as technology has advanced. We are either at the end of the “way it used to be” or at the beginning of a new investigative day. The constant factor throughout the years of change of technology has always been the dedicated investigator. Knowing the quality of individuals that are currently conducting our investigations, I have no doubt that the solutions that currently exist and are being utilized in investigations are only successful because of the human factor that read, discern and interpret the boiled down information. Slow it down, take a breath and do the best possible job you can.


Michael Akpata joined IBM Canada in November of 2015 as the Team Lead Public Safety, Investigations, & Counter Fraud i2 National Sales after serving 20+ years with the Windsor Police Service in Windsor, Ont.

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