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A Missing Link Most Wanted

Shannon Henry   
Column: THE DOWNLOAD Shannon Henry
November 7, 2002; Page E1

Robert Griffin is one of the many former local technology executives who for one reason or another got out of Washington these past few years. Now he's thinking of coming back and bringing a new company from Arizona with him, one whose technology has already been at work locally -- on the sniper case that recently terrorized Washington residents.

Griffin co-founded eMotion, a Vienna digital media company, but left the company and moved to Tucson to take care of a family emergency. In Tucson, he landed as the president of Knowledge Computing, which has developed an artificial intelligence system called Coplink that lets police departments connect relationships to better solve crimes. The system uses police databases to show links between people and places.

"We're good at finding leads," said Griffin, who has held his position at the 13-person company since September. Many perpetrators of crimes have previous-incident reports, points out Griffin, and each report contains numerous clues.

As Washington conducted an all-out manhunt for the sniper, Griffin offered the technology free to the Justice Department. The system was set up in Montgomery County the day before arrests were made in the case, so Coplink didn't catch the alleged snipers. But it can help draw a clearer picture of what happened, in preparation for prosecution.

"We can search [the alleged sniper's] other associations," says Griffin. "They can now start building a pattern of where this guy's been."

Although Coplink -- created at the University of Arizona by Hsinchun Chen, who directs the Artifical Intelligence Laboratory at the university -- is patented software, its parent company isn't the only one creating what's known as information-sharing technology. MicroStrategy of Vienna and Templar of Alexandria both sell data-mining software that helps organizations make better use of their vast stores of information. And businesses such as i2 of Dallas do "link analysis" by examining relationships shown through data.

Coplink is now being installed in police departments in Boston, Des Moines and Redmond, Wash., and has been fully deployed in Tucson, says Griffin.

Lt. Jennifer Schroeder has been managing Coplink in the Tucson Police Department since 1999. She says the technology has helped solve dozens of crimes in Arizona in the past year, including homicides, robberies and aggravated assaults. "We are just beginning to appreciate the value," she says. "It helps us get to our own information without the interference of an analyst."

Earlier this year, says Schroeder, a person was beaten, stabbed, shot and run over by a car. On the way to the hospital, the victim was able to say to police that someone named "Shorty" did it, says Schroeder. "That was all we had," she says.

Through the Coplink system, especially using information about gang affiliations and prison records, police were able to identify a likely suspect named "Shorty." An arrest was made the same day, says Schroeder.

Of course, not every case is solved so easily. And criminals moving from state to state -- or even city to city -- can evade Coplink's trail merely by spreading their clues far and wide. Ideally, Schroeder says, the technology eventually will be connected among different jurisdictions so information can be shared. "The goal of the system is to bring more agencies together," says Schroeder. Arizona is leading the pack in combining intellectual forces: Schroeder says Tucson and Phoenix will be linked by the end of the year. But it seems likely that other regions, which have their own budgets, priorities and ways of doing things, will be slow to cooperate.

And this is Griffin's toughest challenge: trying to get the attention of as many police departments as he can while learning much about how different jurisdictions operate.

Linking facts in the sniper case will be a big test of what Coplink can do. Just for this project, all information from Maryland, the District and Virginia and from federal databases such as the FBI's Rapidstart is being collected in a single, searchable data file. That means all the tips, sightings and other clues eventually will be in one place, unblocked by state lines. "We take all of the feeds and bring them all together," says Griffin.

Because she's been using the system for so long, Schroeder recently traveled to Maryland to help Montgomery County police install Coplink. She agrees that the compilation of information from several jurisdictions should showcase what the technology can do and help build a stronger case.

Griffin says that at previous jobs he has worked to develop technology that is nice to have, but not vital. The Coplink project is different. "This is technology that is must-to-have," he says. He is hoping police departments across the country will think so too.

Join Shannon Henry live online for a chat about her new book, "The Dinner Club," today at noon at Shannon Henry's e-mail address is

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