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Things You Should Know But Don’t: The Serial Killer Algorithm

Posted November 8, 2021

The idea of technology and machines making some jobs easier- or even obsolete- is not a new concept. It’s been repeated as technology has rapidly advanced in the past few decades. As much as tech can make some jobs safer and more efficient, it also brings some legitimate worries to the surface. Disaster can strike if companies don’t take the right security precautions or if there are technical glitches. And there are some jobs people argue shouldn’t use things like artificial intelligence at all. For instance, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the use of facial recognition algorithms in policing.

However, what if an algorithm could help solve a murder? Not just one, but a string of them, to bring down a serial killer. What if it could be used for good, to help bring justice to those whose cases often go unsolved or ignored?

Former investigative journalist and Whitehouse correspondent Thomas K. Hargrove had this very hope when he started coding the algorithm used on his website, www.murderdata.org, over a decade ago. The aptly named website houses Hargrove’s algorithm, which uses FBI homicide data to “identify clusters of murders with an elevated probability of containing serial killings”. The website puts the data together in a way that takes into consideration things like the method, place, time, and sex of the victim. By doing this, it can predict if an area could have an active serial killer by linking cases together that might otherwise go unnoticed. Most famously, the algorithm is what eventually led to the arrest of Darren Deon Vann (“The Gary Strangler”) in Gary, Indiana. A computer can intake, sort, and connect data much faster and accurately than a human can. Despite this, the police of Gary unfortunately did not trust that Hargrove’s data was correct and his suggestions to investigate went unheeded for years.

The most astonishing thing of all, though, is that Hargrove took his comprehensive database and made it both public and entirely free to use. Their website even explains in detail how to use and interpret the data. While Hargrove is well-known for helping to initiate the investigation into several serial killers, his algorithm has had other uses as well. He founded the Murder Accountability Project with the goal of using the collected data to advocate for victims of unsolved homicides and to hold the departments that fail to report on them responsible.

The website is clear, however, that what it contains is only a tool. Without anyone to read and interpret the data in a meaningful way, it’s just numbers like any program. There is a delicate balance when it comes to technology in the workforce. Being too dependent on it is risky and can lead to malfunctions, security risks, and false flags. Not trusting it at all can lean the other way, as it did in Gary, Indiana for several years, with important information going ignored. If we tread carefully, perhaps we can come to a comfortable middle ground where AI and tech work in tandem with a much-needed human touch.

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