The use of forensic GIS and geospatial modeling as evidence in litigation cases is becoming commonplace as technology continues to evolve. 3D simulations of accidents and crimes and valuations of damages to property are increasingly based on geospatial data collected using scientific tools and methods with verifiable accuracy rates.

Animation and Simulation

Insurance claims, accident litigation, crime recreation – all these activities require proof that something happened and there was some amount of damage, and someone or something is responsible. The tricky part is proving which version of the story is most correct, and that is where geospatial technology comes in handy.

Animating a series of events is a highly flexible aid used in support of witness testimony. By integrating site data with topographic and orthographic imagery in a GIS environment, an accurate geo-referenced database of the incident is created. This realistic representation of the scene can be used to show exactly what a witness says happened. Because a geospatial model is interactive, a user can switch between different perspectives, rotate around an illustration, experiment with different theories and display statistics to provide clarification.

“We use surveys and measurements to accurately recreate a sequence of events in an animated format to explain a story.”

– Brian Brill

In addition to animations, simulations are used in court. Simulations are created by collecting data at the scene, entering data into a simulation program, and conducting computer-assisted analysis. This technique must pass stricter standards to be admissible as evidence and is beneficial in situations where calculations are needed to support the facts. The explanation must be defensible in court and backed up with a scientific process.

Mountain Graphix, based in Dillon, Colo., specializes in 3D reproductions for recreation litigation, product liability, medical malpractice, vehicle accident, personal injury, and real estate law. “An animation has to be based on facts to be sensible in court or in a deposition,” says Brian Brill, founder of Mountain Graphix. “We use surveys and measurements to accurately recreate a sequence of events in an animated format to explain a story. This is even more important if the jury is not familiar with the activity involved, such as skiing down a mountain or riding a zipline.”

“As an expert witness, I explain to the judge in a pre-trial Daubert hearing the geospatial and scientific concepts that I use to re-create an event,” says Brill. “For example, I outline the steps we take to perform a laser scan survey of the area, which generates some number of data points with an accuracy of, for example, +/- 2 mm, and so on.”

Valuation of Damages

A key factor in litigation is establishing the value of property that has been damaged. Maps, GIS databases and natural resource inventories play an important role by providing information about conditions before an incident to compare with the post-event status. 

Insurance companies use geospatial data to calculate premiums based on risk and potential losses, and to evaluate claims after a destructive event. Geographic Resource Solutions (GRS) in Arcata, California, specializes in mapping vegetation and trees. Their work is used for natural resource inventories, valuation, insurance litigation, forest management, planning, and restoration. 

California experienced its most devastating wildfire season of all time in 2018 in terms of loss of property and lives — more than 100 fatalities, and 1.8 million acres and over 23,000 structures burned. As of April 2019, insurance claims from the Camp, Hill and Woolsey fires alone were already over $12 billion, according to the California Department of Insurance. Clearly there is a lot of money at stake, and insurance companies are using geospatial information to manage the process.

As a Licensed Forester in the State of California, Ken Stumpf, director of resource management applications at GRS, has over 40 years’ experience mapping natural resources. “We have mapped millions of acres for the Bureau of Land Management, primarily along the West Coast and in Alaska,” says Stumpf. “Up-to-date, detailed databases prepared before and after natural disasters are valuable for many applications. 

“For example, after a fire, federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management conduct Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) assessments to evaluate fire severity,” Stumpf explains. “They also attempt to quantify risk to life and property and identify potential problems in the future, such as mudslides, flooding, and unstable trees. 

“A land appraiser can use a GIS database to estimate values of specific areas comprised of various kinds and sizes of trees, by individual landowner or county, while insurance companies use GIS to justify claims payouts and to protect themselves in court,” Stumpf continues. “Databases that give visibility into species, vegetation and type of trees that were present also aid in restoration efforts after the fact.”

Impact of Geospatial Technology

Preserving the original scene of a crime or accident is the gold standard for reliable evidence. The ability to scan a large area, such as the scene of a multi-vehicle accident, and capture a great deal of detail in a short period of time is vital. Based on a point cloud captured at the scene, a 3D model augmented with imagery and GIS can be developed for whatever type of analysis is needed.

Improved computer analytics provide insightful assessment of a situation that might not have been feasible in the past. There are point solutions specifically for forensics that mathematically transform a scene with measurements, heights of vehicles, trajectories, blood splatter analysis, etc. 

“I use a combination of tools depending on the situation,” says Brill. “ESRI ArcMap, 3D Analyst, VUE, 3ds Max, GIS, scanning LiDAR, and CloudCompare. I use the latest technology to keep improving my results.”

The decrease in cost for data storage makes it much less expensive to archive huge volumes of data, which is driving requirements to map with higher detail and resolution. The data can then be presented in aggregate form or in small pieces, depending on the need. “We mapped several million acres in Alaska this summer, down to 2-acre stands,” says Stumpf. “We provide forest inventory estimates that include species-specific estimates of trees/acres, height, cubic volume, and biomass. We are no longer limited by storage capacity.”

“Many of the GIS capabilities and spatial databases that we use today that have really advanced our ability to manage forests and natural resources were originally developed in the late ‘70’s, primarily funded by the forestry industry,” says Stumpf. “While the vendor-supplied GIS systems are very useful, we also create our own custom apps to further enhance our use of GIS technology.” 

Drones are also changing the way law enforcement and investigators gather evidence. Prices are declining while capabilities are improving with high-resolution cameras and better accuracy, as well as UAV-sized LiDAR sensors. 

“Drones are incredibly helpful,” says Brill. “I have three drones now — a Phantom II, III, and IV. I use a drone on almost every case for top-down imaging and fly-throughs, say along a path or ski run. It saves a lot of time and is less expensive than hiring pilots to capture imagery from a plane. A Drone to Map software application stitches drone data into a 3D model and puts it into a GIS for me to work with.” 

Access to Information

Learn more about how geospatial technology is aiding forensic investigations

Forensic analysis will continue to benefit from greater acceptance of geospatial technology as a tool in gathering and presenting evidence to support criminal and litigation cases. Animations and simulations help juries visualize and understand what happened by improving their situational awareness. Emergency personnel responding to accidents and crimes can collect evidence faster and more accurately, and GIS databases and natural resource inventories provide a baseline to determine valuations and facilitate restoration after an adverse event.