Wright State researchers awarded prestigious Magic Grant from Brown Institute for Media Innovation

Nathan Adams, a computer science graduate student, left, who works with Dan Krane, professor of biology, will help audit forensic DNA software through an award from the Brown Institute for Media Innovation. (Photo by Erin Pence)

Wright State University researchers are part of a team awarded a prestigious Magic Grant from the Brown Institute for Media Innovation to conduct audits of DNA software used for criminal prosecution.

Dan Krane and Nathan Adams are on the team, which is headed by Jeanna Matthews, an associate professor of computer science at Clarkson University and a distinguished speaker for the Association for Computing Machinery, the world’s largest scientific and educational computing society.

The Brown Institute for Media Innovation is a collaboration between Stanford University’s School of Engineering and the Columbia Journalism School. Each year, the institute awards Magic Grants to foster new tools and modes of expression and to create stories about important contemporary political, cultural or technical issues.

This year, the institute awarded nearly $1 million for 12 projects, including developing a database and interactive display connecting deaths in Mexico stemming from U.S. deportations; another project pairs a documentary filmmaker and a theater director to examine the suppression of the African-American vote in the 2016 presidential election.

The project involving the Wright State researchers, which received a $75,000 grant, is aimed at decoding differences in forensic DNA software, which is used as evidence in criminal trials and can play a role in the outcome.

Krane, professor of biology, is one of the world’s foremost DNA experts, testifying as an expert witness in more than 100 criminal trials in which DNA evidence was presented. He is president of Forensic Bioinformatics, which has reviewed testing from hundreds of cases around the world every year since 2002.

“I am quite sure that this is the first time that anyone from Wright State has been involved with a Magic Grant — a joint program between Columbia and Stanford that gets journalists working directly with researchers to bring important insights directly to the public,” said Krane.

Adams is a systems engineer who focuses on DNA analysis. He is pursuing a master’s degree in computer science at Wright State and works as a consultant for Krane’s company.

Also on the team are ProPublica data journalist Surya Mattu, Columbia statistics professor David Madigan and Jessica Goldthwaite of the New York City Legal Aid Society’s DNA unit.

The project will compare forensic DNA software, moving the story beyond anecdotal examples to a systematic investigative strategy. In the process, the team will explore important issues of algorithmic transparency and the role of complex software systems in the criminal justice system.

Mark Hansen, director of the Brown Institute, calls it “an incredibly powerful and timely project.”

William C. Thompson, professor emeritus from the criminology, law and society department at the University of California, Irvine, had urged the institute to support the project. He said new probabilistic genotyping software is being adopted by police crime labs and widely used in criminal cases without adequate external scrutiny and evaluation.

“In my view, the combination of skills represented by this team — computer science, biology, statistics, forensics, law and journalism — combined with deep historical and practical knowledge of the subject matter is exactly what is needed to conduct a rigorous evaluation of PG systems,” Thompson wrote.

This year, the institute’s projects are also supported by the Data Science Institute at Columbia University as well as through a longstanding partnership with “Frontline” on PBS.

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