Virginia Tech® home

Inspector Gadgets

Tools of detection come in all shapes and sizes.


Magnifying glass? Check. Fingerprint powder? Check. Notebook and pen? Check. Superior deductive reasoning and a dry wit? Check.

Sherlock Holmes may have had a toolbox stocked with such essential items, but if he were a real inspector working today, he might be expanding his repertoire to include the tools of detection that Virginia Tech faculty use for gathering, visualizing, future-forecasting, and fact sharing. Faculty members in the far-reaching College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences use particularly diverse investigative concepts to illuminate a range of mysteries.

Take the case of a suspicious excess of illnesses in the small French seaside town of Fos-sur-Mer, an area home to dozens of heavy petrochemical industries. As Barbara Allen presented her grand research reveal, suspense mounted. How would the mayor react to her findings? He had not supported her investigation, and as he stood to speak, Allen held her breath.

“This is the research study we have been waiting for,” he said.

The town had endured more than a dozen state-sponsored health studies, all of which had concluded that no negative environmental factors surrounded the town’s 18,000 residents. The mayor had no patience for another survey of the same. And the citizens believed it was the industrial environment that was causing health issues to populations near Marseille, one of France’s largest cities.

Allen, a professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Science, Technology, and Society, had used a different approach to collect and analyze the clues that formed her research. The French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety funded her community-based participatory research in two polluted towns, Fos-sur-Mer and Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône.

To start, Allen and her team of doctoral students held focus groups that enabled community members to voice what details they wanted to know about the environment and their own well-being.

The team then traveled door to door to interview more than 800 people in the communities. The survey comprised questions based on the public meeting results.

Once the team members had compiled the information, they held more than 30 focus groups to analyze the data.

“What happens,” Allen says, “is that people, in the context of their lives, can look at data and make links we as scientists would miss because we’re not living it.”

The focus groups asked, for example, whether the data showed coexisting illnesses. The researchers determined that, indeed, many people had clusters of illnesses, such as throat cancer, skin conditions, and adult-onset asthma. They turned this information into a new diagnostic tool for local health care providers, who are in turn now applying for funding to study relationships among the conditions.

In response to the results, the French health care system has asked Allen’s team to train others in community-based participatory research.

“This work,” Allen says, “has the potential to change France’s national approach to measuring health in regions in which citizens had previously raised concerns about health, to no avail.”

Tools for Visioneering

Another mystery has been unraveling in France, near the small northeastern city of Verdun, where a multidisciplinary team of Virginia Tech investigators is using immersive technologies to walk in history’s footsteps.

While working on a project with the American Battle Monuments Commission’s mandate to remember the sacrifice of U.S. soldiers, David Hicks, a professor in the School of Education, became interested in the remains of Vauquois, a World War I–era village.

 “The village went from fighting in the street to below ground in the cellars,” Hicks says. “The cellars then became trenches, which in turn became tunnels.”

With a grant from Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology, Hicks and the other investigators on his team have turned Vauquois into a collaborative research project. They have combined ground-penetrating radar, photogrammetry, and laser scanning with archival work to create a digital recreation of the above- and below-ground features of the craters, trenches, tunnels, and galleries.

Their goal is to incorporate these technologies into an immersive experience that answers the question, If this place could talk, what would it say about life during the First World War?

The team has also built a virtual-reality simulation that allows participants to experience being in the tunnels. Team members have expanded that simulation to incorporate a physical structure with tactile sensations, along with point-cloud technology to reconstruct the surface and geography of the space.

Hicks believes these immersive-technology tools help bring history to life. “If you can think about people in the past and understand what life was like for them,” he says, “you can better consider others today with empathy and respect.”

Tools for Seeing Sound

The same immersive technologies that bring hidden histories into view can also render sound visible. From the files of Ivica Ico Bukvic, an associate professor in the School of Performing Arts, comes the curious investigation of seeing spatial audio.

Bukvic is part of a Virginia Tech team that studies user interactions with data in mixed-reality environments. Team members received a grant from Microsoft to explore the company’s HoloLens potential, which Bukvic is combining with another venture called the Spatial Audio Data Immersive Experience project.

HoloLenses look like bulky, wraparound sunglasses that allow the real and virtual worlds to be viewed simultaneously.

“You still see everything around you, but when you look through the lens, you might discover something else, such as a virtual pet you can view only through those glasses,” Bukvic says. “And the system recognizes your head motions, so as you move your head, the image of the pet realigns itself to appear in the same position.”

But instead of seeing a puppy, in Bukvic’s research in the Cube at the Moss Art Center, viewers “see” the location of sound. Although this work has implications for visual entertainment, it also creates a more intuitive way of composing music for the Cube, whose sound system incorporates more than a hundred loudspeakers.

“With the HoloLens, I can just glance toward the sound and see a visual manifestation,” Bukvic says. “It may be a pulsating light or an orb. I can grab it, move it, and record it. Over time, I can have multiple people moving sound so it becomes like an orchestra of spatialized sounds.”

Bukvic describes the HoloLens-and-Cube combination in terms of decision theatre, an immersive environment that provides a space for collaboration and technologies to assist human reasoning for group decision-making. The HoloLens allows participants to see and hear data, which increases their ability to process the information.


Computer-Enabled Sleuthing

Even without the HoloLens, decision theatre enables investigators to devise strategic outcomes. Those working in a control center during a crisis, for example, must coordinate decisions with quickly evolving data.

Aaron Brantly, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, creates disaster simulations to help Virginia Tech students think beyond the borders of the traditional classroom.

“The idea is to break down barriers between different disciplines in each college,” he says, “so computer science, social science, and business students can interact with complex issues related to security challenges.”

To do this, Brantly creates a computerized disaster scenario with preprogrammed data, and each student takes on a mock emergency management role, ranging from a local sanitation commissioner to the U.S. Secretary of Defense.

The simulated case of Hurricane Sandy, for example, begins pre-storm, and the students must create an emergency plan. Who should they evacuate? How should they prepare resources? How will they handle electrical outages, water contamination, and data compromised by computer hackers?

Then the students deal with the storm itself and the vulnerabilities it creates within the infrastructure. National and international crises occur, including cyberattacks. The students must work through these complicated issues, which simultaneously involve businesses, government, and individuals.

“The idea is to give students a controlled yet realistic simulation that allows them to think way outside the box,” Brantly says. “This type of project leverages their interdisciplinary studies to prepare them to succeed in the workforce in a manner beyond what a focus on a single discipline can provide.”

Decrypting the Socialsphere

While Brantly is training the next generation of cybersecurity sleuths, social media runs rampant with fearsome cries of fake news and propaganda. But never fear, Virginia Tech investigators are also on that case.

James Hawdon, a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention, is using his detective skills to help predict crises caused through social media before they happen. He is part of a university team investigating threat-detection methods on Twitter. Through a National Science Foundation grant, the team uses computational algorithms to sort data gleaned from the social media platform to learn how polarizing tweets pose a threat to both geographic and social communities.

“Our research model will track how polarizing information flows through time and space,” Hawdon says. “We will track the origin of the information and its dissemination across geographic and social space.”

The team’s theory is that polarizing information is a barometer of social threat. The computer scientists involved are working on the algorithm to sift through the data and classify the tweets as positive, negative, or neutral.

Hawdon’s role is to analyze traditional research on the measurement of social capital through community surveys, census tracking, voter turnout, and philanthropic giving. The traditional research measures the effects of social-media polarization, and the team will use these data to align the algorithm’s results.

“What we’re hoping to find,” Hawdon says, “is a way to detect, in near real time, threats to the social fabric of communities in the larger society.”

One of Hawdon’s graduate students — Stacey Clifton, a doctoral student in criminology — has seen the benefit of using powerful technological tools in her own research. Applying urban-computing methods to her work, Clifton explores how police-training programs shape officers and their immersion in the police subculture, affecting their beliefs and attitudes.

Clifton also explores officer coping strategies. Like Hawdon, she uses social-network analysis and other tools to gain understanding into criminology theories. To predict traffic-stop searches, for example, she applies decision trees to map out the outcomes of police choices.

“Applying data science has afforded me an opportunity to use concepts I would have previously disregarded,” Clifton says. “I can now see and appreciate how multiple disciplines come together to explain complex phenomena.”

Mapping the System

The use of technology as an investigative tool goes beyond past or future visualizers. The amassing of data can help users see unexpected truths, such as the classic phenomenon of gerrymandering.

LaDale Winling, an associate professor of history, collaborates with colleagues at the University of Richmond to shed light on political boundary manipulations. The team has used digital data visualization to map more than a century’s worth of election returns for the U.S. House of Representatives.

“With these visualizations and resources, you can see the effects of redistricting over time in a way that has never been possible,” Winling says. “You can see where landslides happen because of redistricting and how changes can turn a blue area red and vice versa.”

The online map, “Electing the House of Representatives,” shows a timeline and a graph of how districts across the United States voted throughout history. The website uses a geographic information system and a shapefiles format to display the information in a dynamic, intuitive way.

“This website,” Winling says, “makes years of redistricting—and the manipulation of boundary lines based on a location’s political leanings—more transparent to the public.”


Digital Humanities Tools

Whereas detectives of yesteryear met in clandestine places to exchange information, the web has become a gathering place of information and investigators. E. Thomas Ewing is an advocate for digital humanities tools to help sleuth out nuances in history. In addition to using computational tools for analyzing large-scale interactions between people, organizations, and ideas, Ewing, a history professor, uses online resources for digital publishing.

In a workshop called “Viral Networks,” supported by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, Ewing convened a group of medical historians to create an open-source scholarly publication at the National Library of Medicine.

“This workshop addressed many of the university’s priorities,” Ewing says. “Virginia Tech is placing emphasis on transdisciplinary research, new approaches to digital publishing, innovative applications of data analysis, and scholarship on the human dimensions of disease, medicine, and health.”

During the workshop, participants used virtual-editing activities to increase the community of scholars who are using current digital technologies and resources to expand historical medical research.

The Mysteries Never End

The college’s faculty investigators solve a variety of puzzles with tools that even Sherlock Holmes would envy. Whether they use innovative data-gathering techniques or present research in inventive ways, their information sheds light on issues and complexities the modern world faces.

“It’s essential to have experts in the liberal arts fields involved in collaborative research because they’re the ones who can question assumptions that are built into the technology, the data, and the digitized media,” Ewing says. “They’re the ones who can put all the pieces together and say what it all means.”

Case closed. 

Written by Leslie King