Investigative analytics take a bite out of environmental crime

To delve deeper into increasingly complex environmental crimes, a nonprofit organization needed to solve data integration and analytics challenges.

If someone were to ask how an elephant, tiger and rhinoceros are related, most people might interpret the question as a children's riddle. But for environmental advocates, the connection is more insidious: They are popular targets for poachers.

To curtail crimes like poaching, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), headquartered in the United Kingdom, monitors networks engaging in this and other illegal activities. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) analyzes that evidence and sifts in data from additional contacts, open source historical information and government reports and then disseminates its findings. But not unlike challenges facing most businesses, the EIA's data for investigative analytics is often scattered across disparate systems, generated in different forms such as text and photo, and is difficult to integrate.

The EIA's data for investigative analytics is often scattered across disparate systems, generated in different forms such as text and photo, and is difficult to integrate.

"[We have] a large amount of information, but it's split up by different campaigns," said Charlotte Davies, an analyst for the EIA. While it segregates and stores data by topics such as elephant poaching or deforestation, those committing the crimes aren't necessarily beholden to a single illegal activity, she added.

In pursuit of a more complete picture, the EIA sought a way to correlate information across campaigns, which it did by building a new database and investing in new analytics tools.

A single repository

The EIA was established in 1984 as a campaigning agency, which means it can raise awareness but does not have the authority to enforce the law. In other words, the organization can explore criminal activity and document cases of illegal trade, but it can't make arrests.

Still, the core of the EIA's data collection efforts is covert, on-the-ground investigations to identify trading networks and, more specifically, to keep tabs on individuals who make up these networks. "That's what we recommend enforcement agencies do, too," Davies said, "but, generally speaking, the enforcement response to criminal activity is not on that level."

Instead, Davies said, enforcement agencies react to environmental crime the way some banks and retail organizations respond to customer complaints: They tend to start with the incident rather than try to prevent the incident from happening at all. The EIA's philosophy was to pursue a more forward-looking approach.

"[We gather] information and [use] it in order to proactively target criminals to lead to the disruption and eventual reduction of crime," Davies said. "It's designed to strengthen the enforcement response, but in order to do that, [we] need to have all of the information in one place in the first place."

To refine its investigative analytics program, the EIA deployed a two-pronged approach. First, it sought out a custom-designed database to establish a central repository for its data. In 2006, the NGO deployed iBase, a product of what was then known as i2 Ltd. At the time, i2 was headquartered in Cambridge, England, and designed products specifically for government and law enforcement agencies as well as corporate security departments. In 2011, IBM acquired i2, and the software is now part of Big Blue's investigative analytics and big data package offering.

Dan Vesset, program vice president of business analytics research for IDC in Framingham, Mass., called IBM's acquisition of i2 "niche" and "the way forward" when news first broke. "Not just for IBM, but SAP and Oracle should look at more special line-of-business and industry-specific applications where the intellectual property has been packaged into the software," he said.

For the EIA, iBase stood above other like products because of its ability to organize its historical information and investigative findings. It essentially picked up where other databases left off, giving users searchable and more complete access to its records.

"We have thousands of records," said Davies. "You can use [iBase] to query those records. You can look for trends over time, extract information in the case of sharing information, and it's tailored to the recipient's requirements."

Connecting the dots

Second, the EIA needed tools that could help it keep tabs on the players involved in criminal activity and map out how the networks are constructed. In the past, the organization could do this manually. But as the years ticked by, crime rings became more complex; they grew, overlapped and stretched beyond a country's borders. With Asian big cats, for example, illegal trades can be linked between China, India and Nepal. Integrating that kind of data together is vital to understanding the totality of the crime, according to Davies.

Smattering of other IBM acquisitions

2012: IBM acquires Texas Memory Systems, a supplier of flash storage

2012: IBM acquires Varicent, a sales and performance management software provider

2011: IBM acquires Q1 Labs for security intelligence software

2010: IBM acquires Web analytics firm Coremetrics

Around the same time it deployed iBase, the EIA selected Analyst's Notebook, another popular product among government and law enforcement agencies developed by i2. "It's suited [for this kind of work] because you can represent people, and they're at the heart of the trade," Davies said.

The product provided a visual means to connect people to dates, locations, criminal activities and each other in a kind of flow chart. When users want to add a new detail to an investigation, they open the electronic file, make a note and draw lines to related information, according to a 2009 story on how the U.S. Army is using the same technology.

"We've revisited some of the same places," Davies said, "and we've come across the same traders, in some cases, who are somehow able to continue their operations, whether that's an indicator of an absence of enforcement or of corruption in a localized way or whatever. But we can represent that, we can explain that."

Davies, who has seen no disruption in service or encountered any changes since the IBM acquisition, expects the crime rings to become even more intricate as the EIA continues to gather more data and builds out its iBase repository. As with any investigation, there are gaps in the EIA's information as well, which they're now better able to see and hoping to fill in.

"You need to gather the right kinds of information in order to effectively target the people who are perpetuating the crime," Davies said.

This was first published in January 2013

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