Trent University upgrades forensics lab with tablet PCs

Trent University’s forensic science program might not boast the multi-million-dollar labs seen on TV’s various CSI franchises. But the Peterborough, Ont.-based school has taken one step closer to the cutting edge, thanks to a recent HP Canada technology for teaching higher education grant of $80,000 of HP equipment.

The grant, which includes 21 tablet PCs, a projector, colour printer and digital camera, will make Trent the first forensic program in Canada to use tablet PCs in the field, according to program director Paul Wilson. Until now students in forensic programs across Canada have used pen and paper for crime scene data collection.

Most of the analysis is done at the school lab, although students might also use the computers to do preliminary work at the scene to further develop their investigative skills, he said. Applications the school is running on the tablet PCs include blood spatter analysis.

The biggest advantage to using tablet PCs in the field, particularly for crime scene investigation, is that it reduces the likelihood of the errors that result from manual input.

“Traditionally someone is going to collect samples and write on the bags,” he said. “Those samples are going to get sent to a lab and someone else records them on a form, so as it goes through the process, the risk of errors increases, as opposed to a single point of entry that is bar code tracked and that is then seamless from crime scene to lab.

“Even to report summaries which then go to court — it expedites things and it minimizes errors.”

Wilson said it’s difficult to figure out what photos belong to what components of someone’s handwritten notes. “Using tablet PCs allows a hierarchical database to assemble all those hot buttons associated with the tablets to co-ordinate videos and voice recording or photos and sample collections, so it’s a very integrated organizational structure, which right now is done manually.”

The device size — the tablet PC is in between a PDA and a laptop — works well, he said. As well, being able to write on the tablet and have those handwritten notes convert to text electronically provides a permanent electronic record and forms a continuity of evidence starting with the original data entry point, making it easier to present in court.

According to Lynn Anderson, vice-president of marketing and alliances for HP (Canada) Co., Trent is one of four schools to receive the grant. The others are Simon Fraser, which will be using the money to give students hands-on experience designing complex systems software; the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, which will be using it to develop business case-related models; and Queen’s University, whose mechanical and materials engineering students have been given wireless technology to share notes and sketches.

The Trent University grant, she says, means real life is a little closer to matching the world portrayed on popular TV shows such as CSI. 

“People can draw a link between how the technology is used and how it makes a contribution to that role,” she said.

Trent’s forensic science program, which is delivered in partnership with Fleming College, is further benefiting from the fact that some of its instructors are CSI practitioners who are able to provide feedback on how the software should be designed, said Wilson. Eventually, he said, he expects that feedback and development process to be used by operational crime scene units.

“From my perspective I want my students to be educated on this type of data collection because it’s going to be the forensic norm in a few years,” he said. “It gives them a cutting edge advantage of being the ones who helped beta test these developments, so they know some of the pitfalls and how to get around them.”

Although most people might associate forensics with murder investigations, there is a growing demand for such skills in the environmental arena, said Wilson. That’s why Trent also prepares students for careers in wildlife research and conservation genetics.

“The Ministry of Natural Resources enforces wildlife infractions, so my expertise is around non-human forensic applications, which are the ones that are becoming more and more significant in terms of growth areas,” said Wilson, “things like how do you track pathogens like SARS and West Nile, and how do you enforce laws against poaching and trade in endangered species.” 

Even if the tablet PCs don’t turn out to be the best option for in-the-field data collection and analysis in a forensic setting, there’s no downside to the grant for HP, said Anderson.

“I’m a big believer if we’re not pushing the envelope every day we’re losing ground,” she says. “With some of these there will be great successes; with others there won’t. That doesn’t take away the fundamental success of the product. It may not be that tool for what that prof had in mind, but that’s how innovation happens, and it may allow us to build the exact right one in the future.”

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