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Student uses Google to track drug-trafficking gangs

Costa Rica,Crime/Disaster/Accident,Science/Tech, Fri, 09 Nov 2012 IANS

San Diego (US), Nov 9 (IANS/EFE) A Mexican working on her PhD at Harvard University's Department of Government has developed an algorithm that uses Google's search engine to track the activity, movement and "modus operandi" of drug cartels in her homeland.

Viridiana Rios, who was assisted on the project by Michele Coscia, a fellow at Google and the Harvard Kennedy School's Center for International Development, told EFE that the automated search algorithm allows them to conduct mass searches on criminal gangs in Google's news aggregator.

She said one of their programme's advantages is that it uses publicly available information that otherwise would be lost amid the vast volume of news and data on the subject.

In the abstract of their article published Oct 23 and titled "How and Where Do Criminals Operate? Using Google to Track Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations", they explain that they use "unambiguous query terms" to exploit "indexed reliable sources such as online newspapers and blogs".

The tool allows them to "obtain quantitative information about the mobility and modus operandi of criminal groups, information that would otherwise require the operation of large-scale, expensive intelligence exercises to be obtained", the abstract says.

"If lack of data was once a research problem, now there are so many sources ... both digital and analog, that reading, classifying, filtering and navigating through this massive quantity of data is a problem," Rios told EFE.

With the tools she and Coscia have developed, two people are able to read everything that has been published on the topic from 1990 to the present.

"My interest as a Mexican in developing these tools is to help the country. I want to serve. I'd like to use the tools developed at Harvard to support Mexico's growth," Rios said.

Rios' other published articles include "Why Did Mexico Become So Violent? A Self-Reinforcing Violent Equilibrium Caused by Competition and Enforcement".

Drug-related violence, according to that article, "can be understood as the result of two factors: (a) homicides caused by traffickers battling to take control of a competitive market, and (b) casualties and arrests generated by law enforcement operations against traffickers".

The number of homicides in Mexico officially classified as drug-related skyrocketed from 8,901 in 2001-2006 to 41,648 from Dec 1, 2006 to June 30, 2010.

"The escalation of drug-related violence within Mexico is a puzzle. The country had long been a supplier of illegal drugs without this business causing any significant violence," the article notes.

Rios said her interest in the subject stems from her work at Mexico's federal Social Development Department, where she became aware of how an increase in the incidence of kidnappings and extortion affects low-income people.

--IANS/EFE

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