Thursday, May 19, 2011

Wired: Criminal-Profiling Trick Used to Combat Disease

"A technique that helps crime fighters zoom in on a serial killer’s whereabouts may help scientists prevent deaths of a different sort — those caused by infectious diseases.

The widely used criminology technique, called geographic profiling, helps investigators narrow a search by pinpointing high-priority targets among thousands of potential locations. In an upcoming International Journal of Health Geographics, researchers demonstrated the technique’s usefulness by identifying the sources of a recent malaria outbreak in Cairo and reconstructing an infamous cholera outbreak in Victorian London. Applying the technique to infectious diseases could help focus interventions, perhaps preventing the spread of disease while saving time and money."

"The math behind geographic profiling also incorporates the idea that all distances are not created equal — highways are easier to traverse than a congested downtown. All these measures then generate a map of places the offender is likely to live, which is overlaid on a map of a search area. Unlike geospatial techniques that designate a central point from which a search radiates equally outward, geographic profiling pinpoints highly probable locations, even if they are at opposite ends of the search area.

Le Comber and his colleagues applied geographic profiling to a recent malaria outbreak in Cairo. Of 59 water bodies where mosquito larvae were found, only eight contained those species that are the most dangerous carriers of the disease. Knowing only the locations of the outbreak’s 139 malaria cases, geographic profiling correctly put six of these eight sites in the most infectious 2 percent of the 59."

Wired - Criminal-Profiling Trick Used to Combat Disease

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This is an example of the two edged sword that is data mining. The same kinds of data mining techniques that can make Project Gaydar a threat to privacy can also help save lives in a non-intrusive way.

As a society we need to think carefully about the rules surrounding how we allow data mining and their impact on privacy and, frankly, democracy and freedom. Universities have long understood that these lines exist. That is why they have ethics committees that review the ethical practices and questions surrounding research.

Our society needs to have a larger conversation, rather than simply allowing the quest for profit and power (often the same thing) to be the guiding for in an *anything goes* world.

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Just for the record - the above excerpt about malaria might be interesting if exteded to something like mosquito control in urban areas in Canada (like Winnipeg in the summer). These techniques might allow for less use of insecticides. It might also work for controlling rat populations and allow for less poisons to be used in that exercise.

It could also be used by those in power to stamp out demonstrations and resistance. Think about the use of techniques like this if you treated demonstrations like disease and modelled them. Think about Iran and its repression. Think about the G20 summit and how these kinds of techniques could be used to stop legitimate protest. Then apply these techniques to electoral strategy - especially governments that don't care about getting a mandate in a first-past-the-post electoral system - governments that only care about eking out a plurality based victory that gives them more than half the seats in the house...

Think about it.

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