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First Edition 2017
Griffith Magazine

Data discovery a pattern for the future

Steve Gollschewski, Professor Paul Mazerolle, Ian Stewart and Peter Martin at the launch of the Social Analytics Lab at Mt Gravatt campus.

Griffith Magazine

First Edition November 2017

Effectively mining and interpreting data, is the challenge for Dr Daniel Birks and his fellow researchers at Griffith’s Social Analytics Lab.

The world’s most valuable commodity is no longer oil or coal – it’s data.

But like any commodity, it is only valuable if you know how to use it.

“90 per cent of the data available today was created in the past two years,” Dr Daniel Birks, from Griffith University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, says.

“But these vast amounts of information aren’t particularly useful until they’re contextualised to focus on particular problems.

“You need to turn these data lakes, this vast amount of information, into intelligence.”

Effectively mining, and interpreting data, is the challenge for Dr Birks and his fellow researchers at Griffith’s Social Analytics Lab (SAL).

The $1 million lab, an Australian-first and one of only a handful of its kind in the world, is a high-tech, secure research facility housing a treasure trove of statistics.  

 

“I think of SAL as an incubator for trying to solve society’s problems,” Associate Professor Townsley says.

The de-identified, complex data sets stored at the custom-built facility are carefully protected. Only registered researchers have access, there is no phone or internet connection and electronic devices are left at the door.

The idea of SAL was first conceived a decade ago, when researchers from Simon Fraser University in Canada visited Griffith to explain their research using data from Canadian police.

A similar partnership between Queensland Police Service (QPS) and Griffith saw SAL launched at the university’s Mount Gravatt campus in June. Researchers have unprecedented access to details of the more than one million crimes committed in Queensland in the past 10 years.

“Although it’s taken a few years to get established, mainly due to establishing rigorous security protocols, the QPS has been fantastic and there’s been a real willingness to be part of the project from the start,” Associate Professor Michael Townsley, head of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, says.

“The data they have given us access to provides a level of detail many researchers have never had in Australia.”

The challenge for researchers in SAL is to spot the tiny ripples in this vast lake. Using sophisticated computer modelling, they search previously unseen police data looking for the pattern or clue which could identify a crime hotspot or trend.

Associate Professor Townsley and Dr Birks are working with Griffith’s Dr Tim Hart on one of the first projects to utilise the QPS data within SAL.

 

The trio is aiming to identify patterns in burglary and car crime, which cost the community around $2.5 billion a year.

“One of the first things we’re studying is spatio-temporal patterns of burglary and car crime. That is, how far apart in distance and time crimes typically occur, and how understanding those patterns might inform proactive crime reduction,” Dr Birks says.

“Research from other parts of the world has previously shown if you’re burgled once, there is an increased chance you will be targeted again in a relatively short time period.

“We want to see if this is the case in Queensland and without the QPS data our ability to assess whether these patterns are meaningful would have been really restricted.”

For the researchers, SAL offers a chance to turn academic research into “actionable knowledge”.

“Academic researchers typically struggle to get access to the most sensitive or nuanced data to inform their research,” Dr Birks says.

“SAL is a platform which allows us to do this work. Stakeholders can entrust us with this data and we can do more in-depth work with real benefits.”

With the crime data, this means sharing insights and potential patterns with the QPS, which will likely inform future policing decisions and hopefully reduce crime.

Under a Queensland Linkage Project, SAL is also looking at information from other Queensland Government departments including births, deaths and marriages, child safety and youth justice.

And, in an increasingly data-driven society, there is near-limitless potential to gain insights into everything from the causes of crime, to areas beyond criminology, with the right data set.

But though the work focuses on analysing data, ultimately the rewards are for the people behind it.

“I think of SAL as an incubator for trying to solve society’s problems,” Associate Professor Townsley says.

“The more data we have, the better we can identify the factors driving those problems.”

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