Hey, Professor!

Last week, Harvard PhD candidate Viridiana Rios and the Kennedy school’s Michele Coscia, a post-doc fellow at the Center for International Development, unveiled a new program that sorts through Google news results to track the movement of drug cartels in Mexico. Just months ago, the pair were what Rios calls “Google terrorists” because their program was clogging Google’s server. Now Google wants to team up with Rios and Cosica to fight crime. FM sat down to discuss.

FM: How can Google track drug cartels, and how did you decide to find out?

Viridiana Rios: My dissertation is about organized crime in Mexico. I needed a way to get data on this, and I knew that Michele had this program that finds information in newspapers which is precisely what I wanted to do. When you look at intelligence reports in Mexico, 69 percent of all of the information within those reports has at some point been featured in a local newspaper or in a blog. That means, if I had a tool that could read every single blog and every single newspaper article that has ever been published, I’d get all my data. So I emailed Michele. And I think it has been a very powerful partnership because this tool is being used in a very creative way and in a way that may actually help Mexico.

Michele Coscia: We can track organizations which do not operate in public in a way that’s cheap and doesn’t require a lot of effort, but I thought it was a little bit trivial—we just Google them! I didn’t expect to be amazed, and like “Oh my god, this is magic!”

VR: The cool thing is that, with the data that we got we were able to understand many things that were new about crime. We realized that organized crime doesn’t work everywhere in Mexico.... When we look at our data set, we only find that drug cartels operate in about 30 percent of the municipalities in Mexico, so that’s way lower than we would have expected. We also realized that some organizations are more competitive than others and basically every organization has different strategies to approach their markets and to move in their markets. Not all criminals are the same.... That’s very telling for Mexican authorities to understand that they cannot use the same policies to target different criminal groups.