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15 November 2010

Students to help identify disaster victims by their jewellery

Researchers from the University of Dundee's Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHID) have partnered with design students from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design to devise a system for classifying jewellery found on the remains of those who are victims of mass disasters.

CAHID is a member of the FAST and efficient international disaster victim Identification (FASTID) project, an EU-funded, three-year collaboration of six partners - INTERPOL, Bundeskriminalamt (BKA - Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office), the University of Dundee, the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (Germany), Plassdata (Denmark) and Crabbe Consulting Ltd (UK and Germany).

The project will provide INTERPOL, and its 188 member countries, with a more effective means of recording and matching victims of mass fatality events. As part of their Master of Design studies, four students from DJCAD are helping forensic researchers from CAHID in the Dundee component of the project.

Descriptions of jewellery found in disasters can help to identify victims whose remains are difficult to identify by more conventional means. Jewellery can tell investigators a lot about a person especially if the items have religious or cultural significance which helps to narrow the field of possible matches between the victim and the missing person. Inscriptions on rings and other items also hold vital clues to the possible identity of the victim.

This type of analysis is already used in the aftermath of disasters to a limited extent, but identification attempts are often hampered by the fact that information about jewellery and clothing may be recorded by non-experts who use inconsistent terminology and lack specialist knowledge of the items which can result in possible matches being missed.

The students will be using their design experience to compile a framework which may be utilised by Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) teams to record information more efficiently and effectively in the aftermath of a mass fatality event. They will analyse a vast array of images and types of jewellery and develop a common language and terminology which makes the search more effective.

They will help to create a category system to match ante mortem information provided by families with post-mortem information retrieved by the DVI expert teams.

Professor Sue Black, Director of CAHID, explained that the purpose of this type of forensic analysis is to match up two pieces of evidence.

'The victim may be difficult to identify through the more traditional means e.g. DNA or fingerprints, and this is where we start looking at alternative means of analysing additional evidence, including personal effects,' she explained.

'Those involved in identifying victims will receive descriptions from relatives, which includes items of clothing and jewellery.

'Obviously, jewellery is something that can easily be removed or swapped or indeed stolen, so we have to be careful about what conclusions can be drawn from the items found on the bodies of victims. Unique or distinctive pieces can help us to confirm identity by providing a lead that will allow us to utilise primary evidence to establish identity.

'This method of identification will not replace primary evidence, such as fingerprints and DNA, or secondary evidence which includes for example tattoos or evidence of clinical conditions or surgical intervention but comes under the heading of tertiary evidence which we consider to be corroborative of identity. Every item found is useful in situation such as this, and everything is examined and recorded, which is why having a standardise framework for jewellery classification, is so important.

CAHID is primarily tasked with developing a novel method to optimise the operational commonality ('standard terminology') of identification data across all 188 INTERPOL member countries in the event of an international mass fatality event.

The development of a jewellery classification and description system forms an important part of this. Research into image retrieval and matching methods for assisting forensic identification with respect to craniofacial superimposition approaches to face recognition and body modifications is also being carried out at Dundee as part of this project.

Dr Jan Bikker, one of the Post Doctoral Researchers on this project, said, 'It is hoped that the implementation of our research, in combination with work carried out by the other FASTID partners, will create a state-of-the-art web-based system with greater functionality and efficiency in terms of reconciliation (matching) and recording of identification data in international disasters and/or missing person cases.

'It will also help to standardise information about jewellery for a worldwide database of missing persons.'

Hazel White, Master of Design programme Director at DJCAD, said there were several ways in which the students would benefit from their involvement in the project.

'This ties in with the ethos of the Master of Design course because it gives students the chance to work in an interdisciplinary way with colleagues from forensic sciences,' she said.

'The students are bringing their specialist design skills in jewellery and communication design to the project and translating their knowledge for a non-specialist audience. The skills of the designer are in analysing, translating and communicating these students have the opportunity of applying their skills to a very specialist area, forensic identification.

'As well as developing their design skills, the project demonstrates how their specialisms have unexpected practical applications in the real world. Having the opportunity to work on such a crucial project will demonstrate the depth and breadth of their design skills and their ability to adapt their thinking to a wide range of problems: skills which will be invaluable to future employers.

Notes to editors:

More information on the project can be found at www.interpol.int/fastid.asp.

The Master of Design students taking part in the project are:

  • Lisa Murphy
  • Maria Maclennan
  • Ruth Watson
  • Linsey Mcintosh

For media enquiries contact:
Grant Hill
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University of Dundee
Nethergate, Dundee, DD1 4HN
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E-MAIL: g.hill@dundee.ac.uk
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