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Professor uses geographic profiling to fight crime, disease

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A partnership between two professors led to the recently uncovered new tool to combat infectious disease and terrorism.

Kim Rossmo, Texas State criminology professor, and Steven Le Comber, Queen Mary University of London mathematical biologist, recently discovered geographic profiling can be used to catch more than just criminals.

Geographic profiling is a method originally developed by Rossmo to help locate suspects in serial crimes such as rape and murder.

The model uses statistics to piece together the locations of crime scenes to help identify a criminal’s home or workplace. The system is now being applied to disease control and terrorist attacks, and is being used by law enforcement nationwide.

“You are trying to identify a source of the home base of a criminal offender or the origin of a disease based on a number of connected locations,” Rossmo said.

Rossmo said a portion of his research relates to Hans Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin, which is based on a true story and describes how one couple distributed hundreds of postcards promoting an anti-Nazi Berlin in 1940. The pair were eventually caught in 1943 and sentenced to death.

Rossmo said his research, which was recently published in Geospatial Intelligence Review, revealed that the couple could have been located within a few months using his geographic profiling techniques.

“When we heard of the book, we saw an opportunity to maybe explore the geographic profiling and the problem the Gestapo faced back in the 1940s,” Rossmo said. “It sparked the idea of the models.”

Although geographic profiling was originally designed to fight crime, Rossmo said it can now be used for infectious disease control thanks to the application of biological data by Le Comber.

“The crimes of the offender or the incidents in the cases of disease—even though they’re very different subject areas, the problem is very similar,” Rossmo said. “Any time you have a situation where you’re trying to figure out where something is, and you don’t know where that is, but you have some manifestation of it, then it’s applicable.”

Le Comber said he reached out to Rossmo as a doctoral student upon discovering his geographic profiling research. Since then, Le Comber said the two have worked together for 14 years to connect geographic profiling to disease control.

“It already has a big effect in law enforcement,” Le Comber said. “That was all Kim. But when Kim and I started to work together, we applied it to biological data.”

The idea of geographic profiling first originated when Rossmo was a student working with his doctoral supervisor, Paul Brantingham. At the time, Rossmo said Brantingham and his wife were working on a model that studied crime activity space.

“I was interested in maybe converting that model,” Rossmo said. “Say, we may not know where they live, but we do (know) the location of the crime, so we turn things around and try to figure out where they’re most likely based if we know where those crimes occurred.”

When Rossmo first approached Brantingham with the idea, he said he wasn’t sure if there would be a sufficient amount of data for the model to work reversed.

“I thought it was a great idea, but I didn’t know if he would be able to get enough data,” Brantingham said. “It was a wonderful experience to have a graduate student be so successful. He was very hardworking, diligent and insightful as a student.”