Vancouver Police Thought It Would Take 2 Years to Analyze Riot Footage

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Vancouver's police department needs help from American forensic experts because they got a little too much help from citizens.

In the wake of the Stanley Cup Riots that broke out in the city earlier this year, the police asked people to send in their photos and videos of the mayhem (like the embed above). Many, many of them did. In total, 1,600 hours of footage was sent to local officials.

For the Vancouver PD, this deluge of data presented a terrible problem. In a recent press conference, Chief Constable Jim Chu admitted that it would take "two years" for his 50-person investigative team to process all that video. Two years (!) to analyze an incident that lasted just a few hours! Think about that. This is the surveillance society police problem: too much data, not too little.

So, Chu's team is looking outside Canada for some help. The Law Enforcement and Video Services Association maintains a video forensics training facility at the University of Indianapolis, which its creators had always imagined might be used in times of a national emergency to do large-scale footage analysis. The Vancouver riot footage will be the first time the Digital Multimedia Evidence Processing Lab is put into emergency operation.

Chu says that the DMEPL will be able to process the 1,600 hours of footage in three weeks rather years. So what is this magical lab? It's actually just 20 workstations running a system called dTective from Ocean Systems, which works in combination with Avid Technology Media Composer to aid forensic analysis. Avid Lanshare connects the stations together to guide the workflow.

This seems like a good solution for the Vancouver police, but I think it should give us pause when it comes to the task faced by law enforcement in the big data age. That a relatively small 20-workstation lab would be able to reduce the time required to analyze 1,600 hours of footage by 97% is amazing. Vancouver is a major world city with a 1,300-strong police force. Yet it was woefully unprepared for large-scale data analysis. How long before police departments have to start staffing up with video editors? One shudders at the data analysis challenges faced by the London police as they try to piece together what happened during the riots.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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