NOVEMBER 01, 2011
The U.S. economy is in a crisis and the national debt continues growing but the federal government keeps funding questionable programs like a “scholarly study of gang violence” to help police analyze crime patterns.
Of all the taxpayer-funded academic projects out there, this one ranks quite high in the area of creativity and innovation. A group of researchers at California’s largest public university have designed a “mathematical algorithm” to identify street gangs involved in unsolved violent crimes. The work is based on patterns of known criminal activity between gangs and represents the “first scholarly study of gang violence of its kind.”
Mathematicians at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) analyzed more than 1,000 gang-related crimes that occurred over a decade in a part of Los Angeles known to have 30 active gangs. To test the algorithm, researchers created a set of simulated data that closely mimicked the crime patterns of the city’s police gang network. Then they excluded key information and tested how well the algorithm could calculate the missing information.
“If police believe a crime might have been committed by one of seven or eight rival gangs, our method would look at recent historical events in the area and compute probabilities as to which of these gangs are most likely to have committed crime,” said the study’s senior author, a UCLA professor of mathematics.
While the esteemed academics could not pinpoint which specific gang committed a crime, in around 80% of the cases they were able to narrow it down to three gang rivalries. Though this doesn’t exactly help police solve crimes, placing the correct gang rivalry within the top three most likely rivalries most of the time is “significantly better than chance.” according to the study’s co-author, who is also a UCLA math professor.
Paving the way for a taxpayer-funded sequel, the professors assure that they “can do even better,” reminding that “this is the first paper that takes this new approach.” In fact, this new “mathematical algorithm” technique can also be applied to a much “broader class of problems that involve activity on social networks,” asserts the UCLA math professor in charge.
Like so many questionable projects over the years, this one was largely funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which was created by Congress six decades ago to promote the progress of science and advance national health. With an annual budget of about $7 billion, it’s the only federal agency whose mission includes support for all fields of fundamental science and engineering.
In the last few years the NSF has come under fire for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on frivolous things like a play about climate change and the study of dinosaur eggs in China. In 2009 the NSF was rocked by a huge computer porn scandal. In a scathing report to Congress the agency’s inspector general revealed that NSF employees spend a significant portion of their workday watching, downloading and e-mailing pornography without ever being caught or disciplined. The porn surfing has cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars, according to investigators.
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