Algorithm: Can math help solve serial killings?

iHeartRadio and TenderfootTV

There were times listening to this podcast — in fact, for the majority of the episodes — where it felt as though it had been misnamed. Scrolling through my playlist I’d find myself looking for a title that would communicate “the one about the Darren Vann murders” or “the one with the psycho guy in Indiana” (which admittedly sound like pretty grim episodes of Friends). And I think that’s because for much of the time it doesn’t really feel like it’s about an algorithm at all.

To be clear, the podcast is most certainly motivated by a clever algorithm. One created by a guy called Thomas Hargrove that he claims can flag activity that might indicate the presence of a serial killer. So in this case, an unusual number of strangulations in the town of Gary, Indiana raised suspicions and we learn about the potentially preventable death of young Afrikka Hardy at the hands of flagrant multi-decade killer, Darren Vann.

From there, host Ben Kuebrich takes a deep dive into the gruesome circumstances surrounding many of Vann’s murders and the podcast evolves into something else entirely. Namely, a study of the sad and strange movements and motivations of an evidently mentally ill man.

The algorithm somehow fades into the background. As does Afrikka.

It takes several episodes to document Vann’s crimes, much of which is uncomfortable listening. For someone who says they aren’t a fan of true crime themselves, Kuebrich doesn’t shy away from the detail. His slightly affected sing-songy voice shares stories of bodies in basements and the hauntingly detached attitude of the perpetrator.

And yet, outside of this considerable detour, this podcast does good work. Particularly in its final episode, where we return to the idea of Hargrove’s algorithm.

The prospect of using pattern-matching algorithms for detection is already part of public conversation, but mostly in the negative sense. Kuebrich makes a good case for how more sophisticated methods could help clear unsolved cases, which tend to disproportionately effect black communities. He also manages to shed some important light on the issue of untested rape kits.

That said, the podcast is informative without ever really being particularly fascinating. Some conversations play out for a little too long, and 12 episodes also feels a bit indulgent. Furthermore, it’s unclear where we’re supposed to land on the algorithm issue as listeners. Kuebrich seems to be recommending that they’re used more in policing, but algorithms are used by police throughout the USA. How might Hargrove’s sit alongside those? How might the idea of “warning potential victims” (as Kuebrich suggests) play out? Clearly many would take exception to a kind of Minority Report scenario.

This is a really interesting topic, and we’ve been promised future episodes. I can only hope that those hone in rather more on the relationship between detection and solution, rather than slipping back into irrelevant and gory detail.

  • Does good work — rape kits etc — but stops short of being particularly fascinating.
  • Should police warn potential victims on the strength of an algorithmic prediction.

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