Drawing to Learn

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Last week in Denver, I stood up in a room full of forensic investigators to explain why Fat Pencil Studio uses SketchUp (3d modeling software designed for architects) to visualize crime scenes. The conference was hosted by ACSR and IAFSM, two professional associations focused on the analysis of evidence collected using the latest forensic technology including drones and laser scanners. These tools capture minute details of a crime scene and display them on screen in a 3d “point cloud” format. Why bother using SketchUp to model a crime scene if there’s already a 3d point cloud? For me, it traces back to a lesson I learned while studying architectural design: the best way to learn about a three dimensional space is to draw it.

Modern crime scene investigations produce a lot of information: witness interviews, photos, surveillance video, 911 call audio, and of course physical evidence (bullet strikes, casings, clothing, blood, and much more). This is a lot for any one person to comprehend, and it’s even harder to keep everyone on the same page when collaborating with a team. Creating a crime scene model allows investigators to capture relevant details in a visual format that is easy to share with colleagues. It’s also a compelling way to present to larger audiences who may be learning about a case for the first time. No wonder major news organizations such as the New York Times and Washington Post have established visual investigation teams to harness 3d visualization for journalism.

On first glance it might seem like bringing 3d graphics to crime scene investigation is all about the technology and making something that “looks cool”. My experience is that there are several more fundamental reasons why this work is valuable.

Shift your perspective. Crime scene photos frame the evidence in a particular way, and going through the same photos over and over again is not the best way to test alternative explanations for what may have happened. Sometimes a change in perspective is needed and a 3d model is a great way to do that. SketchUp makes it easy to set up a series of “scenes” to depict a sequence of events and quickly switch from a birds-eye view to different witness perspectives.  

Overcome language barriers. Words are imprecise, and the language used by a witness to describe a memory can be interpreted differently by different people, even if they speak the same language. And many witnesses do not speak the same language as the investigators and attorneys working on their behalf, or the jurors deciding their case. Illustration is a powerful tool, and in some cases the only way to learn the details of a witness account.

Bridge the expertise gap. A team of legal professionals includes a variety of roles: attorney, paralegal, investigator, forensic expert, each of which brings different expertise to the case. Things that seem obvious to one person may be confusing for others who have different training. Fat Pencil uses 3d models to facilitate team meetings so that scenarios can be explored and documented in real time on screen. This helps ensure that everyone can be equally engaged in the meeting, and easily recall issues discussed by reviewing the 3d model afterward.

Twenty years ago, as I was drawing up my thesis project for a Master of Architecture degree, I could not have predicted that I would end up using the same tools to study crime scenes, but in hindsight it makes sense. Architecture is about understanding a client’s story and creating a space to support their needs. Forensics is the same process in reverse: first understand a space through investigation and then develop a story about what happened there. Scientific principles and visual tools play a critical role in both disciplines.

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Joshua Cohen is a Principal at Fat Pencil Studio