Google Maps Help Predict Meth Labs Before They Open

The same maps that can help you find your way to the mall can help the police predict where meth labs will pop up next. Here's a look inside the strange, fascinating world of geospatial predictive analysis.

Google Maps is a lifesaver. But the mapping technology behind Google Maps isn't just good for highway directions and bike routes; it can also find methamphetamine labs and track gang activity. Experts in the growing field of geospatial predictive analytics use cutting-edge algorithms and data analysis techniques that can do everything from predicting terrorist activity to preventing auto theft.

The larger field that geospatial predictive analytics is a part of—geographical information systems (GIS)—uses data points and specialized software to turn maps into sophisticated analysis tools. Although the work is a far cry from something as sexy as you'd see on Breaking Bad, the GIS field is booming; firms specializing in computer-driven map analysis are hosting conventions, holding hiring fairs, and developing specialized software.

Max Lu, a professor at Kansas State University, developed a novel method of finding meth labs through geospatial predictive analytics. In the 2009 book Geography and Drug Addiction, Lu and partner Jessica Burnum applied spatial data analysis tools to compiled information on the informal meth industry in Colorado Springs and rural Kansas. Burnum and Lu examined data collected from 2002 to 2005 on seized meth lab equipment and where rogue chemists dumped the toxic by-products of methamphetamine manufacture. Using the data, the pair were able to successfully prove meth manufacture was creeping slowly through more and more middle-class neighborhoods in Colorado Springs. Map data analyzed over time successfully demonstrated the spread of meth labs throughout a metropolitan area—and even predicted where they would pop up next.

Naturally, police departments and law enforcement agencies nationwide love geospatial predictive analysis. To give just one example, police departments nationwide are collaborating on the Smart Policing Initiative to integrate geospatial predictive analysis into crimefighting. Participating police departments such as Lowell, Massachussetts, and New Haven, Connecticut, are using similar methods to Lu's to find blocks likely to host discreet drug dealers or where car break-ins will take place. One firm, SPADAC (now owned by GeoEye), recently boasted of their ability to use predictive analysis to find suburbs that street gangs are likely to recruit in. Another firm, Esri, sells police departments worldwide specialized map intelligence software.

Similar tools are used at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as well. In a publicly available document, the DEA described how predictive analysis is being used on the Mexican border. The DEA's El Paso Intelligence Center uses data on drug seizures by local police departments to figure out potential drug smuggling routes into the United States. A special unit in El Paso called the Predictive Analysis Unit ties information on traffic stops to the latest traffic maps in order to determine what roads law enforcement should focus on in the near future. In the near future, the office is expected to start using newer, more sophisticated models that will enable DEA agents to predict the exact points at the border in which drug deliveries enter the United States.

The city of Colorado Springs has made GIS information on meth lab busts publicly available.

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter and Google+.

[Homepage image: Flickr user Eli Nixon; top image: Flickr user 16 Miles of String

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  • D Grant Smith

    Google is Tony Stark's Jarvis, only more personal and seemingly with more answers. And you don't have to be a billionare to access it, just have an internet connection. Wow. Fascinating story!