ISVG examines real-time patterns of global violence

The Institute for the Study of Violent Groups is an open source research center at the University of New Haven that provides custom data collection and information services to enhance knowledge of violent extremism and transnational crime. The Institute’s research provides data and analytics for defense decision support. In this interview, IT and Analysis Coordinator John Hitzeman spoke with us about how Tableau helps his team create analytic products that incorporate geospatial visualizations, link associations, temporal outlines, statistical dashboards, and social network analysis.

Tableau: What do you do at ISVG and how does Tableau help?
John Hitzeman, IT and Analysis Coordinator: We study terrorism, extremism, and transnational crime worldwide. We've been doing open-source collection since 2002 with about 100 students who go through articles and pull out all the data from there. Basically, they're human entity extractors. They pull out the events, the groups involved, and the individuals involved, and they take that and put it into a database that we condense in Tableau and analyze.

Tableau: What’s a typical use of Tableau that impacts your business?
John: We use Tableau in a variety of different ways. First, we exported our data out of the database, and loaded it into Tableau just to see what it looked like. The results were so good that we decided to go with Tableau Desktop where we could hook directly to the database and perform that type of analysis straight off the server. Our administrative teams can actually connect live to our server, show our product on an iPad, and say, here's everything we've collected for the last 10 years.

Another way that we use Tableau is we track what our students are doing using Tableau, and develop dashboards to show their productivity—how many entries they're doing per hour and how many hours a week that they're working—so traveling administrators can make budgetary decisions based on what they see in Tableau via their portable device.

Tableau: Who else uses your data—what types of clients?
John: Most of our clients are in the government, Department of Defense. We receive grant money from them to perform open source collection throughout the world. Our students help us provide information to them at a fraction of the cost of a full-time analyst employed by the government. We have about 100 students that collect this information, and each of those students is paid 8 to $10 an hour, which is about a tenth of the cost of an analyst.

Everything we do is open source and unclassified. So whenever we give our information out to the government, they can share it with allies, share it with other governments or even share it between levels of our own government without violating any kind of secrecy.

Tableau: Has working with Tableau changed the way you work at ISVG?
John: Before Tableau, we were very top-down in our analysis. There were basically three people in the organization who could do it: two PhDs and me. I’d pull the data from the database as a query and give it to them to run through their statistical analysis tools. If we needed to do a trend-level model or trend models, we had to pass it up instead of down in our organization.

With Tableau, we've trained our students how to build dashboards themselves so that they can produce reports that then get distributed. Instead of a top-down model, we now have a more distributed model in how we conduct our analysis and a more grassroots effort to produce content.

Tableau: How has Tableau impacted productivity?
John: I have a team of 10 people who are all trained in Tableau Desktop, who can produce dashboards and create reports. We have a turnaround time of a day instead of a week or more. Instead of doing very few reports a year, now we can do multiple in a week. We can actually produce about five-a-week using just students.

Tableau: How has that changed what is possible?
John: It’s changed how we model our analysis. Instead of just modeling our own information coming from the ISVG database, we've expanded out into our community and started working with the university's administration to handle issues like spacing—so which classrooms are most -- most filled, which ones are least utilized? We've also reached out to the West Haven Police Department and analyzed some of their CAD data so that they can see where crime is happening and how to best allocate personnel to respond to that crime. And by integrating Tableau into our classrooms and teaching students how to use Tableau, they become more competitive in the field.

Tableau: Has Tableau impacted the questions you ask of your data?
John: Because we have Tableau and can slice and dice the data instantly, we can start to answer questions that we never thought to ask before. Like, which terrorist groups are the most effective? We connect to the server, pull the data, have it all at our fingertips, and just start tearing into it.

Tableau: What’s Tableau meant to you personally?
John: Tableau is an awesome time saver. It’s freed up my time. It has essentially changed my mission in the organization from getting people data to getting people educated.

My entire week used to be was spent querying data, visualizing it, and producing a report. Now I’ve trained other people how to use Tableau, so that they can produce reports, produce dashboards, produce anything that we need them to, or even query the data using Tableau so that I don't have to.

With the time saved, I’m creating a team, growing the team, and working more closely with university administration to teach others how to analyze data and share the knowledge using Tableau.

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