Visualization tools support Army's criminal investigations

As helpful as graphical depictions of data can be, elaborate visualization techniques can be overkill when all you need to do is sketch how all the parts of a subject fit together. For instance, when it comes to understanding government procurement, some well-placed arrows and icons can go a long way toward making sense of the inherent complexity of contracts.

Integrator SRA International, which has a contract to help the Army Criminal Investigation Command investigate potential procurement fraud, uses the Analyst's Notebook visualization software from i2 to help root out cases of bribery, money laundering or conspiracy.

"The contracting arena is just so large [and] there are so many government personnel, bidders, contractors, employees and their families," said Amanda Post, an analyst at SRA. "Data visualization software really helps clarify the big picture."

SRA's team of 10 analysts searches every day through evidence collected from search warrants.

"We're scanning everything out there to find evidence to support our investigation against criminal fraud," Post said. Evidence might consist of an e-mail message that states that a certain amount of money has been transferred from one account to another or a bank receipt of a wire transfer.

Each case has a large chart, created with the i2 software, which details how all the entities in a case relate to one another. Whenever analysts finds a piece of evidence worth noting, they enter it into the chart and then draw a line to other related pieces of evidence. The user interface for i2 software, which is installed on each analyst's desktop computer, resembles a drawing board. Users have a palette of tools with an array of icons that they can drag onto the drawing board. A link button connects entities to one another.

"We use the software to show the flow of money, the subject relationships," Post said. "It allows our team at SRA to support investigations by producing visual aids that show the relationships between people, businesses and events."

The charts can be used for a variety of tasks. The team will print out and post a chart on a wall so they can keep track of the big picture. Or a prosecuting attorney can use it as a courtroom exhibit. It also helps personnel from outside agencies quickly get up-to-speed on a case. And when interviewing subjects, an analyst can refer to the chart to clarify complex relationships.

Investigators have been using whiteboards for decades as a way to map information, but i2's software offers advantages over a manual approach, Post said. Managing the complexity is one: An average case could have 200 entities or more. With the software, entities can easily be erased and moved around, and multiple data points about an entity can be layered onto the chart. Also, charts need to be redone as new facts are unearthed. "The charts that we have are always a work in progress," Post said.

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