Bringing big data to firearm forensics

DIG IT AWARD FINALIST: Big Data, Analytics and Visualization

Bringing big data to firearm forensics

The ability to match a bullet with the gun that fired it is a critical tool for law enforcement, and such forensics have traditionally relied on careful case-by-case comparisons by an experienced examiner.

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Hands-on examination by highly trained specialists does not scale, however, so the National Institute of Standards and Technology has developed a high-tech, open-access and crowdsourced solution called the Ballistics Toolmark Research Database to help modernize that process.  

Drawing on ballistics data from the FBI's reference firearms collection and other participating law enforcement agencies, NIST is building a vast collection of high-resolution virtual models of fired bullets. Test-fired bullets and cartridge cases, along with information on the guns that fired them, are sent to NIST, where lab technicians scan the samples using a microscope that produces a high-resolution, 3-D topographic surface map. The result is a virtual model of the physical object.

The surface maps produce more detailed comparison data than the 2-D images traditionally used to match bullets. They also remove many of the ambiguities that can cloud traditional matches and help law enforcement agencies speed their investigations. 

In addition, the growing library gives researchers the data to develop new identification methods and advance the forensics even further.

The way NIST set about developing the ballistics database is also noteworthy. The Laboratory Information Systems Team created a business plan to use existing IT resources to provide full systems development capabilities in-house. Officials used LIST's fixed budget to fund a multiyear, flexible contract for software development support.

That approach allowed NIST to obtain project management, business analysis, hosting, software development, product deployment and maintenance -- as well as support for Federal Information Security Management Act requirements -- at lower fixed hourly rates than any contract vendor could offer.

About the Author

Troy K. Schneider is editor-in-chief of FCW and GCN.

Prior to joining 1105 Media in 2012, Schneider was the New America Foundation’s Director of Media & Technology, and before that was Managing Director for Electronic Publishing at the Atlantic Media Company. The founding editor of, Schneider also helped launch the political site in the mid-1990s, and worked on the earliest online efforts of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. He began his career in print journalism, and has written for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times,, Slate, Politico, National Journal, Governing, and many of the other titles listed above.

Schneider is a graduate of Indiana University, where his emphases were journalism, business and religious studies.

Click here for previous articles by Schneider, or connect with him on Twitter: @troyschneider.

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