Crimefighters seek a digital advantage

As an Australian police officer prepares to encounter a suspected terrorist or criminal gang member, arrayed on his or her iPad mini screen are the up to the minute results of a comprehensive search of more than 1000 federal, state and territory police databases detailing all essential facts about the individual. This may not be the case today, but is the future aim of a major IT collaboration and consolidation program underway at the Australian Crime Commission (ACC). IDM spoke with Chief Information Officer Narelle Lovett to learn more about the quest.

Programs to improve enterprise search are typically driven by a desire to have staff spend less time looking for information, with success measured by the impact on productivity. However, in the case of criminal and terrorist investigations the improvements may have a tangible impact on the success or failure of law enforcement operations in life or death situations.

A proposed National Criminal Intelligence System (NCIS), currently at the Proof of Concept stage, is seeking to update a 30-year old legacy database used by 24 law enforcement agencies country-wide as an information repository and analysis tool.

It is also seeking better ways to mine the unstructured data that sits within the 3.5 million documents the ACC holds in its records. Most of the datasets are text, and the ACC is currently working with researchers from the University of Sydney on text analytics to get the most of out the data.

For this it is using a range of analytics tools including Palantir technology used by the US Intelligence Community and Department of Defense.

Narelle Lovett, A/G Chief Information Officer, Australian Crime Com- mission (ACC), said, “The Australian Criminal Intelligence database is based on old technology. It also didn't lend itself to sharing, where appropriate, information across state and federal boundaries. With- in law enforcement, criminals don't stay within their state boundaries, let alone their international boundaries.”

The Proof of Concept trial is exploring multiple strands including entity extraction, data mining and natural language processing. This work builds on the ACCs Fusion project completed in 2014, to provide better search engine and analytics capability.

The ACC is not proposing to build an Australian criminal “data warehouse” by extracting data from the many existing state and territory police databases.

“The ACC doesn't want to own the primary copy of that data. But to be able to do essentially one search that points the officer to where to find all of the information that pertains to that entity,” said Lovett.

“It something within law enforcement that we've struggled with for a significant number of years, as across the Australian law enforcement community there is a significant difference in technology with different databases, methodologies, network connectivity, etc.”

“The fundamental objective is officer safety, so our officers go into situations as fully armed as they can with knowledge about that situation. It's also to look at indicators and warnings to say, 'Well, okay, this type of behaviour has been noticed in Perth, a similar type of behaviour's been noticed in Sydney; are these two things connected?  Is there a link here that we're unaware of?

“We also need to be smart about the results, so an officer is not required to scroll through 200 search results on an iPad mini. It’s about delivering the most appropriate information for the situation they're in.”

Delivering this kind of search nirvana won’t be easy. In addition to technical divergence between police data platforms, taxonomies and the legacy issues common to most large enterprises, there is another challenge in dealing with differences in state and territory legislation.

“You don't want to be doing any operations work on old information, so our officers need to find out if the information in the Australian Criminal Intelligence Database is the most up to date available. If they find out it’s not, then it may become a legal issue to get access to any new data revealed in a search.

“That’s not to say that you'll automatically get full access to all of that information, because your user profile may only give you some; but at least the search will tell you there is information contained within a database relating to the entity you are looking for.

“We're not looking to tackle the legislation. If we tried to do that we'd be here forever.

“We're not in the business of doing any fishing exercises across the databases, we're just looking to get access to the indexes so that we can do one search to find out if there is anything relating to a particular entity.”

“The fundamental objective is officer safety, so our officers go into situations as fully armed as they can with knowledge about that situation" - Narelle Lovett, Chief Information Officer, Australian Crime Commission (ACC)

In addition to the challenge of gaining access to state and territory databases, there is the difficulty of querying the vast amount of unstructured data that is either in digital file shares or still held in paper form. Like all Australian government entries, different state and federal police forces are at varying stages of digitisation and centralised content management in terms of current workflows and historical records.

“Most agencies are working through it,” acknowledges Lovett, “but there is a significant amount of paper that we just won't be able to tackle.

“We won't be able to see anything that's not in a database to start with.

The Australian Crime Commission has around 650 end users while a merger with CrimTrac and the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) will add the challenge of integrating 200+ new users

Like all state and federal police forces and agencies at all levels of government, the ACC is doing a lot of work internally around how it stores digital records, its long term archiving strategy, how to cope with the increasing storage demands, and under- standing the frameworks for the provenance of the data

“TRIM is our main document management platform and most of our information is stored within that system; but there is obviously still a lot of content in emails and file shares. Making it

searchable internally is something that we're working on as well,” said Lovett.

While the Australian government has set a deadline of 2020 for federal agencies to make the digital transition, the ACC envisages a much longer time frame to perfect the National Criminal Intelligence System.

“This is a significant body of work over a significant period, and we're looking to achieve a realistic outcome. We will bite off what we think we can achieve, prove the value in that work, and then move onto the next challenge. This is not something that's going to happen in two years' time,” said Lovett.