From crime, to child protection and defence: telling stories with data

Infographics are now key in helping to translate complex data into images

UniSA researchers have designed a digital tool to help the police, defence industry – and now child protection services – translate complex data into a visual story, saving hundreds of hours of time.

The narrative visualisation tool, developed by Dr Andrew Cunningham, Dr James Walsh, and Prof Bruce Thomas, has already allowed the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to create snapshots of crime by distilling mountains of case notes and briefs into image-based stories.

The software helps prosecutors, lawyers and juries get up to speed in the courtroom so they can more easily understand complex facts, saving hours of admin and time.

Dr Walsh, a postdoctoral researcher at UniSA STEM, says the software identifies key events of a criminal case, selecting the most relevant data from case notes and presenting it in an easy-to-grasp snapshot, whilst still being able to dig into the details.

Another domain that has expressed interest is child protection.

“For each child coming into foster and emergency care, government departments are having to plough through years of their history,” Dr Walsh says. “Our tool can help to build a narrative of each child by identifying key dates, events, and overall summary of their life.”

The narrative combines text with images, video, scans, and voiceovers to present a snapshot which filters out the most critical information.

“It’s a marriage of computer science, statistics, graphs, artificial intelligence, artistic design and storytelling,” Dr Walsh says.

“For digital systems we are collecting more data, whether that’s from notes, automated sensors, spreadsheets, video, audio and even x-rays.”

The researchers have worked on the tool to integrate with data from different domains.

A new project with BAE Systems is also examining other narrative visualisation concepts to map the life cycles of defence machinery, tracking the operational and service histories of warships, combat vehicles and aircraft.

“Basically, this tool is useful wherever you have huge complexity – in logistics, transport, healthcare, and finance, for example – and need to summarise the most important elements.”

“The beauty of it is that we can create specific models for each domain. For criminal cases we can focus on pulling out information that relates to charges. For loan applications we can identify a person’s financial history. Basically, we can rank the material to prioritise the information we care about and then present it in a visual form,” Dr Walsh says.

Dynamic graphics and interactive news stories have been part of the online media landscape for several years now, as a response to waning attention spans, the slow death of print, and a global embrace of digital media.

This trend is now spreading beyond the confines of newsrooms and becoming part of the fabric of many industries, the researchers say.

The tool has been acquired by Melbourne-based software company Genix Ventures for commercialisation.

Editor’s notes

The technology was initially developed in collaboration with the former Data to Decisions Cooperative Research Centre, established in 2014 to tackle big data challenges facing Australia’s national security agencies. The work is continuing within UniSA’s Australian Research Centre for Interactive and Virtual Environments (IVE).

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