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From Jack the Ripper to epidemiology and ecology

A technique traditionally used by criminologists to track down the home base of serial criminals could be applied more broadly to conservation biology and epidemiology, according to scientists from Queen Mary, University of London.

17 April 2012

The geoprofile produced from analysis of murder sites attributed to Jack the Ripper in the East End of London in 1888

Geographic profiling (GP) was originally developed as a statistical tool in criminology, where it uses the locations of linked crimes (for example murder, rape or arson) to identify the location of the offender’s residence. The technique is widely used by police forces and investigative agencies around the world. Now, Dr Steven Le Comber from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences has shown in a series of papers that GP can also be applied to biology.

Spatial models in biology are highly sophisticated, but typically run forward in time, to predict how – for example – diseases or invasive species will spread. Much less attention is paid to models that run backwards in time, for example using the addresses of people with malaria to identify the source of the disease. This is surprising, because identifying sources can be used to target control efforts. The new research from Queen Mary has shown how geographic profiling can be used to do exactly this.

Discussing the work – published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution – Dr Le Comber explains: “It’s astonishing that the same method can be used in areas as diverse as serial murder, the spread of invasive species and medicine. So the same mathematical technique can be used to study Jack the Ripper’s crimes and malaria!”

He adds: “We think that public health officials and conservation biologists should look seriously at this technique, since our study suggests that it could be used to fight diseases – and invasive species –more effectively and more efficiently.”

For more on Jack the Ripper, listen to a podcast about Barts and The London Medical School's role in the police investigation. For more podcasts visit the menu page.

For media information, contact:

Neha Okhandiar
Public Relations Manager
Queen Mary University of London
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