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Swapping Secrets of the Double Helix
Harvard DG researcher studies the way criminologists share not just DNA data, but "social capital"
For the DGRC

DNA & Justice:
Studying Information Sharing

Researcher profile: David Lazer

Project profile: A National Center for Digital Government: Integrating Information and Institutions

Nearly two hundred labs handle DNA evidence in the Unites States - private, government and military. There are criminal cases that rely on DNA to convict murderers and rapists, civil cases that rely on DNA to determine child support, military cases that rely on DNA to identify remains.

All of these labs may have different levels of equipment, and their staffs may have different levels of expertise and experience. Yet all of them share a conviction to come up with the right answers for the courts.

Unfortunately, not all labs may have the equipment or staff to get every answer in a timely manner. "If a crime scene sample has the DNA of multiple people, the mathematical analysis is non-trivial," says DG researcher David Lazer. Especially when labs can be very spread out and remote from each other and not every lab has the budget to send every staff member to professional conferences, he says, "How do you reach out if it's beyond your expertise?" Who do these scientists turn to for help?

Lazer, a Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor and editor of a new book fcalled, "DNA and the Criminal Justice System:The Technology of Justice" (MIT Press), is looking at how criminologists - specifically those concerned with DNA - share their knowledge.

Local and federal labs often share DNA databases, but Lazer is going beyond the interchange of physical pieces of information to look at "social capital": How do professionals share the sort of knowledge that can only be gained through experience and education?

"This isn't about computers talking to each other, but people talking to each other," says Lazer, "We're asking, how do computers facilitate communication in a diverse community? People are chained to computers with DNA databases that are spread around the country - how do they contact their fellow professionals?"

His work is being conducted under an umbrella grant to the National Center for Digital Government at Harvard/KSG. Lazer does not have a specific government partner, as he explains: "This project is a different model from many DG projects, for us the government is really our subject, rather than our partner. We're studying their utilization of technology."

"The whole forensics community has undergone a revolution, in the era of DNA you can't be competent without a lot of specialized training," explains Frederick Bieber, a consultant to the project, who is a Medical Geneticist at Brigham and Women's Hospital and professor of Pathology at Harvard Medical School. As a result, foresenic scientists are more dependent than ever on shared professional knowledge.

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Several ad hoc listservs have sprung up that allow people to ask for and receive expert advice from their peers, according to Lazer and Bieber. But Lazer's collaborator, Maria Binz-Scharf, an assistant professor at the City College of New York, discovered from interviewing and observing forensic professionals that an all-too human fear gets in the way of taking full advantage of the listservs: "No one wants to admit to ignorance in front of their professional peers," says Lazer. "People wind up asking their friends in the field for help on difficult questions - people to whom they're comfortable admitting they're not perfect. It's an understandable, but not an ideal situation. There might be a better person out there to ask."

In addition, people admitted another strategy to Binz-Scharf: Because they were so afraid of looking ignorant, they would spend hours researching answers on their own before going to the expert knowledge base in the listserv. Although it is commendable that they don't wish to waste remote colleagues' time, the price is that they often waste their own time researching answers that someone else may already have.

Observing the sociology of all these interactions has led Lazer to create an online tool that could be used by the forensic science community. is part weblog and part chat board, but Lazer has tweaked the original concept somewhat: initially conceived to bring together prosecutors and defense attorneys, the site's focus is now on DNA labs. It will eventually expand to a broader spectrum of agencies within the criminal justice system, he says.

Articles of interest can be uploaded, and professionals can ask each other questions in real-time that will eventually form the basis of a professional knowledge library. The site will allow professionals to post anonymously, substantially reducing the fear of asking questions and substantially speeding the spread of knowledge in the field. "Sometimes the Web doesn't substitute for person to person contact, but fosters it," says Lazer, "People will pick up the phone and say, 'I've read your posts and I think you can help answer my question.'"

Says Bieber, "I think it's going to be an important contribution, even in a system that already works quite well ... It should help bring labs up to an even higher standard."