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Forensic Analyst: Enhance your career

Have you ever discovered a software feature that, had you known of it sooner, could have helped you in a prior case? Have you been using the same software methods and workflow procedures for the least two years? If you answered yes, then this article is for you.

I remember touring a multimedia studio in the mid-80s where one room was stacked floor to ceiling with suitcase sized equipment connected by a web of cables. The operator corrected audio-video imperfections by adjusting knobs and sliders with the fluid and purposeful artistry of an orchestra conductor. Today’s forensic analyst can accomplish so much more using just a handheld computer and software.

Forensic software is typically born from the frustration of an expert in need of a specific tool, and possessing the programming skills to create it. To generate sales, their software will incorporate some user requested features, while retaining that programmer’s personal workflow preferences. Forensic software can range in price from free to the cost of a sports car, and each product will offer something unique. As you explore your software options, consider your workflow comfort and the required features, as well as the expense.

It is imperative that the user understand their software’s capabilities and limitations. In reality, a software program is merely a toolbox whose true value is measured by the skill of its user. In the world of forensics, incorrect software usage can produce inaccurate results and deny justice, which can haunt one’s conscious and professional career.

The logical solution is to receive training directly from the software manufacturer or a qualified representative. This type of training typically spans several consecutive days in an intense hands-on workshop. If the software features or workflow are new to you, the limited workshop duration may be insufficient to ensure your confident usage. Furthermore, it is reasonable to feel discouraged when real world cases don’t achieve the same impressive results as the perfectly planned workshop demonstration files.

As usage questions arise, turn to the manufacturer’s help desk, on-line resources and user’s manual. If the manufacturer hosts a user’s forum, seek the guidance of your peers as they likely experienced similar issues. You can also find cooperative colleagues at trade conferences and within industry networking groups like “Forensic Focus”. These resources become increasingly important as your workload expands and software updates introduce new features.

In my specific field of forensic audio-video enhancement and authentication, the educational resources are extremely limited. This has created a shortage of qualified experts and above market compensation in the private sector. If you have attempted to enter this career path, you may have found that forensic books are outdated and comprehensive forensic classes are difficult to locate.

Immersive on-site training can be an effective method to learn a new subject or abandon bad habits. If travel is an option, consider the training courses offered during industry conferences (ACFEI, AES, IAI, LEVA, etc…). The scope of the lectures offered are constantly changing and often encompassing cutting edge of technology.

A far more thorough and consistent, but potentially dated, curriculum is available through major universities (e.g. UCDenver’s National Center for Media Forensics) and private training centers (e.g. Resolution Video, Devry University, etc…). Be aware that limited attendance and vendor sponsorships can influence which software classes are made available. Before taking any classes, solicit colleagues and review software demos to help locate the software that is right for you. You may find that a newer, or less popular, software package is the best match to your needs, and that your only hands-on training option may be at the manufacturer’s headquarters.

Since no software is a magic bullet, industry specific software should be used in conjunction with the larger pool of commercial offerings. The Audio-Video industry primarily relies upon the commercial products from Adobe, Avid and Sony. Their products provide innovation, automation, and an exhaustive feature list unavailable in any industry specific solution. When updated regularly, and correctly used in conjunction with industry specific software, the results can be spectacularly clear.

If your commercial software skills were self-taught, or your last comprehensive training was a few years ago, then you will likely have acquired gaps in both knowledge and capabilities. A web browser search will produce a list of free guides and on-line video tutorials to help fill some of those gaps.

Multiple vendors offer professionally produced on-line courses that deliver a solid training on software fundamentals and the latest features. On-line courses provide follow-along examples and the ability to study on your schedule. For example, here are three learning centers that provide unlimited access to their entire on-line course catalog for a nominal monthly fee. Discounts are available for annual and group memberships, and private tutoring can be negotiated with individual lecturers (a real plus to ensure you thoroughly understand the topic).

INFINITESKILLS (cost: $25/month. Downloadable project files included). The offerings are limited, but each course takes you from Beginner to Advance in one continuous series of lessons using the latest software versions and high-interest forensic techniques (e.g. marking a parasite sound in Adobe’s Audition’s spectral view and then applying the automated Sound Remover effect).

LYNDA (cost: $25/month. Add 50% to download project files). Offers an extremely wide range of courses, including lectures on open-source software, optimizing your computer’s performance, and Adobe scripting. Due to the impressive diversity of topics available for each software product, version inconsistencies may exist between courses depending on the year that they were recorded.

VTC ($30. Downloadable project files included). Lists over a thousand video courses. As such, here too different software versions may be used for continuing topics regarding the same software product. For an added fee, VTC offers limited USB off-line course viewing.

Regardless of the delivery method, continuing your education is an easy way to improve your skills and workflow efficiency. The specialized fields of Forensics are growing at an unprecedented rate, as are the range of educational resources available. You may also wish to contribute by authoring a course or mentoring those who are just starting their forensic careers in your area of expertise.

Never stop learning and moving forward with your industry’s scientific advances. As your knowledge and capabilities evolve, test your new found skills on older cases. The difference may surprise you.

Mr. Carner is a forensic analyst, industry educator, inventor of VideoCleaner enhancement software, and President of Forensic Protection, Inc. (ForensicProtection.com).

originally published May 26th, 2014

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