Katherine Weisensee, chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice, has collaborated on a smartphone app to help forensic teams determine times of death. Dubbed geoFOR, the app allows coroners and forensic teams to enter observations when human remains are recovered and then upload photos along with information, such as clothing, location, insect access, scavengers, apparent trauma and decomposition stage. The goal, Weisensee said, is to capture as much information on body decomposition as possible across a variety of geographic areas.
The app automatically factors in information from numerous geographical and environmental databases in order to start building a database on how these specific variables observed on the body overlap with geography and environmental factors.
Ideally, after years of use, the app will have captured enough data on body decomposition from a large enough collection of locations globally to provide a near-instant estimate of time of death. The app is currently being beta tested by multiple South Carolina coroners.
Weisensee is no stranger to the study of human decomposition. She earned master’s and doctoral degrees in anthropology from the University of Tennessee, and she spent a significant amount of time studying body decomposition on the campus’s body farm. She is also often consulted by law enforcement agencies who find corpses well past the final stage of skeletonization.
Her insights into the condition of skeletons have been instrumental for law enforcement in determining time and cause of death in bodies that have long since decomposed. She said the first question across all these consultations is usually related to time of death, so she’s motivated to get this application in the hands of law enforcement, humanitarian agencies and members of the general public with a strong stomach in order to start answering that question automatically.
“It’s exciting to see just how geospatial information meets forensic science, and how all of this information can be combined to finally start quickly answering a question that has eluded people for so long,” Weisensee said.