A grisly job for data scientists

Matching the missing to the dead involves reconciling two national databases.

Missing Person: Ai Weiwei by Daquella manera, on FlickrJavier Reveron went missing from Ohio in 2004. His wallet turned up in New York City, but he was nowhere to be found. By the time his parents arrived to search for him and hand out fliers, his remains had already been buried in an unmarked indigent grave. In New York, where coroner’s resources are precious, remains wait a few months to be claimed before they’re buried by convicts in a potter’s field on uninhabited Hart Island, just off the Bronx in Long Island Sound.

The story, reported by the New York Times last week, has as happy an ending as it could given that beginning. In 2010 Reveron’s parents added him to a national database of missing persons. A month later police in New York matched him to an unidentified body and his remains were disinterred, cremated and given burial ceremonies in Ohio.

Reveron’s ordeal suggests an intriguing, and impactful, machine-learning problem. The Department of Justice maintains separate national, public databases for missing people, unidentified people and unclaimed people. Many records are full of rich data that is almost never a perfect match to data in other databases — hair color entered by a police department might differ from how it’s remembered by a missing person’s family; weights fluctuate; scars appear. Photos are provided for many missing people and some unidentified people, and matching them is difficult. Free-text fields in many entries describe the circumstances under which missing people lived and died; a predilection for hitchhiking could be linked to a death by the side of a road.

I’ve called the Department of Justice (DOJ) to ask about the extent to which they’ve worked with computer scientists to match missing and unidentified people, and will update when I hear back. One thing that’s not immediately apparent is the public availability of the necessary training set — cases that have been successfully matched and removed from the lists. The DOJ apparently doesn’t comment on resolved cases, which could make getting this data difficult. But perhaps there’s room for a coalition to request the anonymized data and manage it to the DOJ’s satisfaction while distributing it to capable data scientists.

Photo: Missing Person: Ai Weiwei by Daquella manera, on Flickr

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  • Doc_Lalana

    Scattered data as well as missing data are a problem well-known in many areas of data gathering institutions. However, the problem can be eased (if not completely remedied) by deciding who will be the principal caretaker entity. Take the example of the ICD (The International Classification of Diseases) which is authored by the UN/WHO. This organization is responsible for developing a unique coding mechanism that all other sub-groups will follow. The ICD version is updated and revised at intervals that are manageable. Of course, a system like this requires training and supervision. And not only that. It also costs money. So, until the crime investigation bodies and recorders decide on who will be the umbrella organization responsible for such a code, we will expect more problems as data overload ensues. Delays in database management system optimization will definitely cost more money in the long run.