Monica Medel: Journalist Turned Crime Mapper

Using social media to track the perception of crime


Monica Medel is a 2016 and 2015 USGIF Scholarship recipient. At Texas State University, her dissertation is using social media to track the perception of crime.

From reporting the news to teaching, Monica Medel’s resume is far from ordinary. The 2016 and 2015 USGIF Scholarship Program recipient is pursuing a Ph.D. in geographic information science at Texas State University, and the subject of her dissertation is using social media to track the perception of crime.

Previously, Medel earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the Universidad de Chile in 1995 and master’s degrees in Latin American studies and public affairs from the University of Texas at Austin in 2012.

Medel began studying crime as a foreign correspondent, analyzing drug trafficking in Mexico and its economic and political impacts for Spanish news agency EFE, and later for Reuters.

“I covered drug trafficking with the Mexican Army and witnessed violence while doing features for Reuters in Michoacán,” Medel said. “In one instance, the police convoy I was with was shot at by an unidentified convoy while conducting a road patrol. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, but that issue and the lives of farmers cultivating drug crops caught my attention and furthered my interest in the field.”

For her dissertation, Medel mines Twitter and uses big data to track crime and the public perception of certain events. Medel said her research is aiming to create a model that extracts the content and feelings of tweets and analyzes them in spatial and social context to better understand how and when particular types of crime trigger specific reactions. She said the system would be useful in tracking real-time crime perception patterns—such as when public reaction reverberates far beyond where the crime occurred and has a larger geographic context—and also in identifying areas where fear of crime is prevalent.

“My passion is researching, working on a real-world problem, and finding a solution,” Medel said.

According to Yongmei Lu, a professor in the department of geography at Texas State University, Medel has left a strong impression on her professors.

“[Monica] has been working closely with me on her research and has already got two peer-reviewed journal articles published with very prestigious GIS and geography journals,” Lu said. “This is an outstanding record for a graduate student who just finished her Ph.D. coursework.”

In addition to her extensive dissertation research, Medel is in her second year as an instructor at Texas State University, teaching an introductory GIS course.

“What I enjoy most while teaching is generating students’ curiosity and their desire to learn more about what is going behind the scenes when they use different types of software to run analyses,” Medel said. “If they learn that, they can then tweak and adapt tools and workflows to better accomplish whatever they have in mind.”

Outside of work, Medel volunteers with the women’s professional and social organization Supporting Women in Geography and GIS and the GeoMentor program through the American Association of Geographers and Esri. She also teaches Spanish to disadvantaged students as part of the Austin Partners in Education organization.

Medel’s advice for future applicants of the USGIF Scholarship Program: “Work hard and show passion for what you’re doing.”

Medel is expected to defend her dissertation and achieve her doctoral degree by summer 2017.

Photo Credit: Monica Medel

Return to feature story: The Future of the GEOINT Tradecraft


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