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Cambridge Police Look at Math to Solve Crimes

This story, by Maria Cramer, appeared in the Boston Globe on 8/4/2013

Maria Cramer, The Boston Globe

It is among the most notoriously difficult crimes to solve — the home break-in. There are seldom witnesses. Burglars tend to work stealthily, either under the cover of darkness or when their victims are away from home, at work or on vacation. On average, police solve no more than 13 percent of residential burglaries, according to national figures.

But two Cambridge police crime analysts and an MIT professor and doctoral student believe a computer system they developed that mathematically analyzes these crimes could be the key to solving more of them.

For the past year they have worked together to develop a calculation for quickly detecting burglary patterns, such as when and where the crime took place, how the burglar broke into the home, or whether the victim was at home sleeping or on vacation.

The algorithm, which they have named Series Finder, can analyze thousands of police incidents in minutes, looking for patterns and citing crimes that closely follow them for analysts who currently spend hours searching through computer databases trying to figure out the habits of a suspect.

“This has the potential to be very significant,” said Lieutenant Daniel Wagner, who runs the department’s crime analysis unit. “This tool, if we’re able to begin to use it on a daily or a regular basis, would help us identify crime series that we might not have picked up on manually being human beings.”

Wagner and Rich Sevieri, the department’s strategic analysis coordinator, approached officials at the MIT Sloan School of Management last year and asked them to collaborate on an experiment that would use advanced math to detect crime patterns.

Police departments, like Boston and Cambridge, have become adept at figuring out hot spots, or where rashes of crimes occur, so they know where to assign patrol officers.

Read the full story from The Boston Globe.

Hear Lt. Wagner and Professor Rudin interviewed on WBUR.

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