Bringing Big Data to Mayberry

HKS alumnus leads ground-up effort to solve crimes

May 20, 2013
by Loren Gary, Center for Public Leadership

In the aftermath of 9/11, billions of dollars in grant funding were devoted to integrating crime data across jurisdictional boundaries based on the belief that the attacks could have been prevented if only the disparate clues that had been detected could have been stitched together and shared in a timely manner.

“There was more selling of hardware than solutions, because procurement cycles favor large capital outlays instead of enduring solutions to a problem,” says former Zuckerman Fellow Brad Davis MPA 2009, vice president of business development for Forensic Logic, a San Francisco-based startup that has created an inexpensive way for law enforcement to participate in the sharing of information. “Now more than a dozen years later, there’s still no effective way to share information throughout the local, state, and federal law enforcement and intelligence communities. The grant funding is going away, so with no money to maintain the programs, you’ve got a lot of white elephants that didn’t work in the first place draining budgets even more.”

As the citizens of Boston learned last month, when a high-profile violent act happens, the law enforcement and intelligence community can be very good at mobilizing massive numbers of law enforcement personnel to collect evidence and go through records in a short period of time to create a profile of the suspects. But most of the more than 1.1 million violent crimes that occur annually in the U.S. don’t get that kind of attention.

“People think law enforcement is like CSI, with in-depth information immediately available to any cop at a computer,” says Davis. “In reality, it’s much closer to Andy Griffith, with phone calls and paper records ruling the day. There are 19,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., and precious few have the ability to understand what’s happening in the city or county next to them. About 4,000 have no digital records management at all—it’s still pen and paper.”

That’s where Forensic Logic comes in. “Our mentality,” Davis explains, “is that by more effectively creating a repository of relevant crime data and a platform for sharing that information, we can bring that same ability to rapidly create a profile of those other 1.1 million violent crimes that occur every year—nearly half of which go unsolved.”

Launched six years ago with like-minded angel investors, Forensic Logic is a public-private partnership that administers a government-run program known as the Law Enforcement Analysis Portal. Capitalizing on the advent of cloud computing and robust encryption technology, the company has become the largest platform for the sharing of local crime data in the country. “We can quickly integrate with about 80% of all records systems in the U.S., and get very rich, robust data from these systems that otherwise are locked away and underutilized,” says Davis.

Taking a ground-up approach, Forensic Logic goes from agency to agency, pooling crime data and integrating it into a secure repository. The process of integration involves a library of custom data connectors that can extract information from the array of records systems used throughout U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The industry standard for this work of data collection and integration can be 90–120 days, says Davis. Forensic Logic does it in four.

The result is that law enforcement information systems that couldn’t communicate with each other can now collaborate across jurisdictional boundaries. As a result, clues from an open case in Salinas, California can help a law enforcement agency in Midland, Texas, bust a drug-running operation. “And our analytics are usually better than what the agencies’ own systems allow,” Davis adds. “In most situations, we can instantly create meaningful analyses around actors and a crime. Our system can determine in seconds what used to take months working the old, paper-based way.” Going forward, he hopes this ability to collate and analyze information at lightning speed will mean that fewer crimes will go unsolved, and also that crimes will be more difficult to commit.

Davis is no stranger to the way government agencies operate, having served as a naval intelligence officer for five years after college. After graduating from HKS and Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, he spent a year and a half at a spinoff of Kissinger Associates in New York City. He later worked for Monitor 360, a consulting firm to the intelligence industry that not only brought him back to his hometown of San Francisco, but also had him applying data to homeland security issues. “It was a revelation seeing how poorly the government handled information,” says Davis. When he came across the team at Forensic Logic just over a year ago, he knew he’d hit on something unique. “It was clear that this group was doing something very different in the government space—instead of padding costs and selling a product, they were slashing costs to build a platform.” He joined the firm a few months later to lead its business development efforts.

Most of Forensic Logic’s clients are local law enforcement agencies. Whereas many of its competitors charge up to $60K for data integration, says Davis, Forensic Logic does this work for free to encourage participation. Law enforcement agencies pay $25 per user per month for access to the company’s data and also its analytics suite; insurance companies, retail firms, and other commercial clients pay more for analytical services and anonymized data. “We provide our services below cost to local law enforcement agencies,” Davis explains, “because we think every officer in America should have access to the information needed to stay safe and solve crimes. However,” he adds with a smile, “we do ask our federal customers to pay a little bit more.”

An example of how the company puts its data to work is a pilot project to reduce the trafficking of underaged girls in Oakland, California. “We were asked by the California Department of Justice to find ways to utilize our data to reduce human trafficking in the state, which has become an enormous problem,” says Davis. “We’ve added a facial recognition component to our data to allow officers in the field the ability to immediately identify those who are trafficking these girls and bring them to justice.” By working with organizations such as HKS professor Swanee Hunt’s Hunt Alternatives Fund and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Forensic Logic also brings a new capability to identify children who have gone missing from one jurisdiction and surface in another. “Our intention,” Davis states, “is to make the trafficking of children a very, very difficult crime to commit.”

Of all the things that make Davis excited about his job, one in particular is a policy he was adamant about putting in place: nonprofits and academic organizations working to reduce crime will receive Forensic Logic’s resources for free. “We’ve put together a dataset that’s never existed before, and the truth is we don’t know yet what can be done with it. We are a mission-driven organization, so what excites us is as many sharp, committed minds as possible finding ways to combat crime in ways we’ve not even thought of yet.”

Brad Davis

Brad Davis MPA 2009
Photo provided by Brad Davis

"There are 19,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., and precious few have the ability to understand what’s happening in the city or county next to them. About 4,000 have no digital records management at all—it’s still pen and paper.”

John F. Kennedy School of Government 79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
617-495-1100 Get Directions Visit Contact Page