Over the course of the summer, Principle One hosted a new group of interns and placement students. Physicists Aaron Thomas and Ishaan Shukla have joined us from Imperial College and Durham University respectively, while Regina Bissai Nzenza began her year’s placement with us as part of her Computer Science and Maths degree at the University of York.
During the placement, the team were tasked with developing a proof of concept for the Digital Forensics Unit (DFU) at West Midlands Police. West Midlands Police is the third largest police force in the UK and have one of the largest DFUs in the country, with around 700 terabytes of data passing through their systems per year.
Given the volumes of data processed on a daily basis, the DFU team recognise that there are often fragments of information buried deep in their data that may not be relevant to the investigation in hand but could provide a rich source of intelligence if it could be retained and searched in subsequent investigations. Could the team develop a proof of concept during their internship to demonstrate how key identifiers could be retained and explored across multiple investigations?
The internship began with a series of core training courses, building the team’s knowledge around agile development approaches, business analysis and systems engineering and taking advantage of the strong foundation of technical and problem solving skills that each brought from their work in academia. With eight weeks to deliver a proof of concept to explore and demonstrate how a central knowledge base of identifiers could add value across a wide range of investigations, this was also a crash course in digital forensics and the wider challenges of working in law enforcement, where the team were ably supported by subject matter experts across the Principle One team.
This let Ishaan, Aaron and Regina very quickly get to grips with the problem statement provided by the DFU, developing a set of user scenarios across a range of different crime types and investigations to explore how access to intelligence captured in previous investigations could help open up new leads and identify connections between potential suspects for further investigation. These ranged from supporting a County Lines investigation to assisting a safeguarding initiative working in partnership with the Public Protection Unit.
Having built a good understanding of the problem, the team were ready to start breaking down their work into a series of sprints, considering the different areas of core functionality. While the delivery of the application could be broken down into creating a process for cleaning and loading data into a searchable format and then creating an application to enable search, they would also need to consider specific constraints such as MoPI (Management of Police Information) requirements to create a viable proof of concept.
While each of the team were already able to draw on previous coding experience, we chose the Microsoft Power Platform to enable rapid prototype development in a technology that was already deployed at West Midlands. As part of mobilisation, the team spent a full day at the Microsoft offices in Paddington to work together to explore the art of the possible. This was a fantastic way to work through the problem space, getting access to Microsoft’s experts to very quickly bounce round different ideas around how the toolset could be used.
With the initial sprint focused on data extraction, the DFU provided the team with some test data that demonstrated the complexity of the challenge; working across multiple devices and data sources and a range of different forensic tools, it rapidly became clear that getting the data into a clean, searchable format would be a more complex task than the team originally anticipated. This was where Regina’s experience in working with Python came to the fore to develop a suite of routines that could handle a wide range of formats and populate the data architecture accordingly. “This project has emphasised to me that understanding the context of the data is incredibly important when doing data cleaning and preparation." she said. "A one-size-fits-all approach does not work given the complexity of the digital forensics data – and not recognising this could lead to major consequences in terms of reworking our code. Putting together our data architecture first really helped us understand the scale and complexity of the data we were dealing with.”
Later sprints moved onto the development of the tool, considering which identifiers to search and how to enable an investigating officer to extract useful intelligence. To keep this work on track and test out ideas with the customer, the team were able to hold a weekly meeting with the DFU product owners covering a review of progress and getting input and feedback on all aspects of the application; from the colour schemes that would promote usability through to compliance requirements around MoPI.
“Agile working isn’t something I was used to.” said Ishaan. “I’m used to having a very clear brief from my tutor at the start of an assignment and then handing work in so the Product Owner role was completely new to me. We couldn’t have made such fast progress or understood the requirements so well without the weekly input from the West Mids team. Their ongoing commitment and willingness to invest time with us was invaluable.”
The project culminated in a trip to West Midlands Police HQ to present to officers across West Midlands, West Mercia and Warwickshire, as well as our partners at Microsoft. “It was immensely rewarding to see our hard work pay off. Just seeing the discussions in the room made it very clear that there is real benefit to be gained from this type of tool.” said Aaron.
“Principle One has worked on multiple projects for the Digital Forensic Unit at West Midlands Police; each time we have engaged Principle One we have seen the benefits of their efforts in real world Digital Investigations; the proof of concept intel tool is no exception.” said DFU team leader, Steve Tesseyman. “We were eager to show other forces the hard work and dedication displayed by Ishaan, Regina and Aaron. If launched, the intel tool will sew together cases which so far are looked at independently. The tool empowers front line officers who may only have individual identifiers which the DFU already recognises. The benefits could be seen from homicide investigations all the way through to the sexual offences teams. We thank Principle One for their professionalism, engagement and continued support for West Midlands Police.”
So what’s next? Aaron, Ishaan and Regina are now working through their final sprint and wrapping up development before Aaron and Ishaan return to complete their final year at university. The internship has given both an insight into both the data challenges faced in law enforcement and into the skills required in technical consultancy. It’s been a chance to develop their teamworking skills and learn new approaches for problem solving that will take them through the remainder of their degree and into the workplace. For Regina, however, it’s just the start of her placement and we can’t wait to see what she will achieve next!