Searching for Intangibles - Data Embodiment Using Protocols

I often find myself following missing-persons cases. I am interested in the reasoning behind the use of resources. There can be major deployments of capital during investigations. I tend to wonder which scenarios trigger more spending than others. I also recognize the visceral side of missing-persons cases. There are publicly accessible databases of missing persons in Canada, the United States, and I am certain many other countries. I imagine that it can be difficult to regard such cases as interesting sources of data if one is personally affected. Yet the other reason I am drawn to the cases is indeed the data and relatively unstructured manner in which facts are presented. I would argue that missing-persons cases also inform us of the limitations of quantitative methods both in terms of locating missing individuals and prosecuting those responsible. I am touched by the choices people make for their eternal resting places, how their bodies are sometimes discovered alongside highways and train tracks. I tell myself, either these are great places not to be found, or these are places where people might be found by strangers. I think about the level of violence necessary to deprive somebody of their mobility and freedom. I am fascinated by the open exchange of data between police departments, communities, and families; it is something inherently natural like leaves rustling in a strong wind. Still, the data is in a language that is difficult to understand. It is often non-quantitative. It is bundled up and wrapped as if to disguise the contents.

I remember walking home one pleasant summer day and encountering a girl clinging to a lamppost on a bridge; this was overlooking a busy highway. Judging but the cuts to her wrist, I quickly assumed that she intended to jump. She seemed uncertain about the final step over the edge. I hope she is fine these days perhaps with many children and a stable outlook on life. I confess at the time, I wanted to know how this young person got into such a messed up situation. Since I felt that she was in an unpredictable frame of mind for conversation, I deliberately decided to say nothing. I understood well enough. She was broken. My main priority was to remain nearby until the police came. When I say nearby, it was near enough to hear her breathing. It is a close relationship indeed to be with a person near the edge. How does stuff like this get quantified? High fencing has been installed on a number of bridges in Toronto. I am not at all certain about the statistics on how many people jump. This post is about missing persons rather than depression and suicide; however, I am probably not the first person to notice, sometimes people that go missing are later confirmed dead as a result of apparent suicide.

I would now like to introduce the process of data embodiment that I am developing to engage my interest in missing-persons cases. I realize this is an unusual area of study, but like I said I find the data stimulating. My background is poorly suited in terms of helping people recover. I am not a psychiatrist or crisis counsellor. But I rather like the idea of doing things to help recover people. So apart from keeping myself occupied by sifting through the data, I would like to think that I can positively contribute to the lives of those who have lost others or who themselves are lost. I consider a blog most effective for the purpose of providing a general overview, less so to convey technical details. So I apologize in advance for covering only a few major points in a superficial manner.

Perhaps everyone has seen a linear portrayal of the Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s systems model. Because the depiction is so linear, I can easily summarize it here: input => process => output. There is often an arrow in the opposite direction for feedback. Below I offer a rather multi-dimensional conceptualization of the model. It emphasizes how a system is actually made up of many subsystems. Processes can be embedded within other processes increasing the level of complexity. Apart from the main arrows normally associated with production, there are also return arrows for feedback to support a process that I call “articulation.” I can spend quite a bit of time on this “recursive model” of systems theory. However, my underlying goal is to leap from the diagram to the table that immediately follows; this table presents the flow of data in the illustration as descriptive text and codes.

As a person collects data associated with different contexts, I believe that the need for tangible results can contribute to “contextual projection.” The needs of the organization begin to define what gets included as data and how the data gets interpreted. This is not as sinister as it seems on the surface. Before I approached the girl clinging to a lamppost, I am sure that many dozens of people had gone down the same path. Some may have been ambivalent about taking action. There is also the intriguing possibility that a number of pedestrians and also drivers simply failed to notice. It is a related state, right? A missing person and a person who is not noticed occupy similar places. The contexts of our lives fail to intersect with those whose lives are at the edge. If they should die, then their bodies might remain missing for some time long after. I have found that elaborate systems-oriented models tend to force the evaluation of things that might otherwise be overlooked or misplaced; it then adds placement in relation to the system.

The table “resembles” the diagram although it is not an exact analog. The table of codes (the “protocol”) contains certain aspects of my graduate research on social disablement. In relation to missing-persons cases, I refer to social disablement in its proper sense: people might find themselves in highly controlled relationships or forcibly confined. Being abducted, sexually molested, beaten, and imprisoned are aspects of imposed disability. (These are methods of subjugation that literally lead to disability.) Consider the following line of reasoning that can be found in the field of critical disability studies: disability is something that is socially conceived. I simply explore the concept on a more basic, extreme, and rather visceral level. A person can cause somebody else to become missing. If the absence of motor ability, eyesight, or hearing can be regarded as disability, then the absence of the entire person must be likewise. A person might be missing because somebody made him or her missing; this external imposition is a form of social disablement. A case might also reflect our inability to locate a person. An individual might be missing because we cannot find him or her. The persistence of the missing condition then becomes related to developments in the investigation.

Codes from the table (such as H1, X2, and E3) are assigned to case details. This is easier said than done by the way. In my application of a protocol to human rights tribunal cases, I assigned codes directly to the comments made by adjudicators. I chose a slightly different approach with missing-persons cases. I now express facts as relations. I then assign codes from the table to the relations. This process makes it possible to maintain the following: 1) a body of facts; 2) information about the relationships between the facts and different contexts; and 3) additional information relating to the systemic interaction of contexts. I describe the mapping of facts and contexts into a systemic framework as “data embodiment.” Embodiment helps to show the impacts of facts and also bring to light the potential absence of important facts. As the protocol above suggests, disablement for me involves a pathological construct. Assigning codes from the table represents an exercise in fault-recognition.

I feel that many would say, the methodology seems fairly coherent (in that there actually seems to be a methodology) although there is no evidence that it works. My response to this is that the data has to be collected regardless. I am simply adding a layer to tag the data based on a series of tests. I hesitantly compare a protocol to a “checklist.” Checklists such as those that support quality control processes tend to be used to confirm conditions either before or shortly after a particular process has occurred; moreover, the level of confirmation is generally near the surface. Facts are apparent through inspection. “Does the tank contain propane? Check. Does the primary pressure regulator work? Check. Is the secondary regulator delivering 10 inches W.C. of pressure? Check.” This sort of checking might occur to ensure safety and for basic diagnostic purposes. So on one hand we could have a pool of data relating to a person. We might also have a checklist called “Confirmation of Human Subject”: two hands; five fingers on each hand; two legs; five toes on each leg; two eyes; one head; one face on the head; one nose on the face; and so forth.

A protocol can differ from a checklist in a few ways. The table asserts procedural direction or flow: from top to bottom at each column; then from left to right. So before a body is recovered or found in a missing-persons case, a person has to disappear or be absent. Before a person becomes missing, there has to be disablement; this should not be surprising given that the protocol confirms the relevance of social disablement. What if disablement as it relates to the protocol does not appear to be an issue? Then the protocol might not be relevant. Using the previous example, if “Confirmation of Human Subject” fails, try “Confirmation of Chimpanzee Subject.” Another important difference with a protocol is how it can be applied to facts and assertions that are conceptually distant from the immediate outcomes of a process. So rather than count a product as defective (near production), one might assert that the product caused a family misery (far from production) contributing to alcohol-abuse (further yet) and divorce (extremely far). The bakes failed causing the loss of several children in the family. Some might argue that this use of a protocol is not particularly scientific since the assertion of “misery” is highly subjective.

In Canada, Supreme Court judges routinely differ on their decisions despite being presented with the same data. There is also a system in place for higher courts to overturn the decisions made by lower courts in certain circumstances. Given that differing expert opinions are possible, one might argue that the legal system is non-scientific. I just want to emphasize that subjectivity is not actually illegitimate. After all, if everybody agreed on the relevance of data and how data should be interpreted, there would be no need to have a judicial system. So for the sake of argument, consider the possibility that a protocol does seem to hold certain facts of a case. The parents of a missing teenager might claim that their daughter would never think about running away; in fact, according to the parents, she constantly reports her whereabouts to them. On one hand, it can be argued that this teenager is naturally obedient. Interpreted differently, it seems that the parents have normalized a certain level of disablement; for regardless of what kind of person the teenager is, the parents have imposed on her the label of an obedient child.

I do not suggest that disablement necessarily exists in any particular missing-persons case or that even my protocol represents the only way to regard disablement. Missing-persons cases where disablement would likely be inapplicable include situations of criminal avoidance: for example, a person might leave the country or fake his or her own death in order to avoid prosecution. (Of course, even these scenarios are subject to interpretation given the disabling nature of political prosecution in some countries.) The use of protocols provides for a frame of discourse. Together with a database of relations, protocols can help an investigator ascertain similarities between cases and determine which lines of reasoning seem to fit the unstructured discourse. I find it intriguing that a protocol developed in Toronto to study a case today might be applied to a missing-persons case many decades later. In this post, I have described a regime where unstructured data can be compared on an abstract level, using relations and a form of theoretical embodiment called a protocol. These protocols can become an asset to an organization, which might have thousands of protocols gained through many years of data-collection. However, it is necessary to structure the information collected in a particular way to ensure long-term accessibility through computer-assisted methods.

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Tags: articulation, bertalanffy, data, disablement, embodiment, family, forensics, investigations, missing, model, More…persons, police, search, social, strategic, suicide, systems, theory, victims, violence


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