Dr. Steven Le Comber of Queen Mary, University of London has put some phenomenal computing power to work in an attempt to solve one of life’s greatest mysteries: Who is Banksy? Though the technique known as “geographic profiling” is currently being used to track criminal activity and monitor disease outbreaks, tagging the reclusive street artist made for a robust test case of a refined version of this methodology.
Artistic tastes aside, Dr. Le Comber’s original intent was to find an epidemiological tool that would allow him trace a disease outbreak to its likely source. He came across geographic profiling via Texas State University criminologist Kim Rossmo, who uses the program to pinpoint a criminal’s likely location based on the lawless activity in a given area. Le Comber and Rossmo are now collaborating on a more advanced model that will track crooks, pathogens, and secretive graffiti artists alike.
The mode of tracking currently favored by law enforcement is called criminal geographic targeting, or CGT. Based on the assumption that criminals won’t pull their dirty tricks in their own backyard, but also won’t go too far out of their way to do so, CGT results in a doughnut-shaped map of incidences which finds the criminal likely residing at its cream-filled center. Le Comber and Rossmo’s more advanced model, dubbed Dirichlet process mixture (DPM) modeling, allows for multiple centers of activity—a home, a workplace, a favorite doughnut shop—with no assumptions made. The data is sorted into clusters, each of which is assigned a probability based on how likely the activity in question is to be coming from a given source. Basically, this is where the advanced processing power of computers crunches a lot of data and comes up with a likely origin location to within 50 meters, or about 160 feet.
But what about Banksy? After testing the system using available data from 1940s anti-Nazi activists Otto and Elise Hampel–it located their home, workplace, and frequented train stations–the team fed 140 locations of Banksy’s suspected works into their program. Out popped a number of locations all associated with a Mr. Robin Gunningham. This result jibes with a 2008 Mail on Sunday investigation that reached the same conclusion.
The full article appears in the latest “Journal of Spatial Science,” which was temporarily delayed due to some concern from Banksy’s lawyers over the wording of a press release. Perhaps more concerning is that the researchers suggest that “these results support previous suggestions that analysis of minor terrorism-related acts (e.g., graffiti) could be used to help locate terrorist bases before more serious incidents occur.”
So do you think geographic profiling is a tool to keep us safe, or a means to quash dissidents? Or is it just for locating super-talented artistic hermits? Let us know in the comments!
HT: The Economist