South Australian researcher Dana Michalski has won an international award for her world ground-breaking work in facial biometrics.

Dr Michalski, who works at Defence Science and Technology at its Edinburgh laboratory, is one of four winners of the 2019 Women in Biometrics Awards, which recognise leaders in the field of biometrics from government, academic, industry, and end user communities. She is the only non-American to win this year’s award and the first Australian to win the honour.

The awards are presented annually by the United States’ Security Industry Association and AVISIAN Publishing, through its SecureIDNews publication.

Dr Michalski has been working in facial biometrics since 2011 after completing an honours degree in behavioural science and psychology at the University of Adelaide.

She soon realised there was significant interest in, and a lack of research relating to, child identification.

Before starting her work she collected requirements from client government agencies including the Department of Defence; Australian Federal Police; Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; former Department of Immigration and Border Protection; former Australian Customs and Border Protection; Department of Homeland Security (US); and, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (US).

She was able to access a large operational database of images from a government agency, comprising several million images of children at various ages throughout childhood.

It’s being used operationally by a government agency with success on images of children, so it’s exciting that our research and development actually gets used and benefits government agencies.

Dr Michalski was able to identify how a child’s face changes as it ages using five commercial facial recognition algorithms on several million images. Separately, she also analysed the performance of 120 experienced facial comparison practitioners who manually matched a combined total of 23,760 unique image pairs and stated whether they believed the images in each pair were of the same child or not, as they would during their regular work duties. These studies were the largest evaluations of their kind.

Dr Michalski said it was a unique opportunity.

"Others don’t really have access to the algorithms, or images, or the staff to do such applied realistic research and so a lot of agencies were really interested in that work," she said.

"Because of that it led to more and more requirements, because there was so much interest in the child work in biometrics, but no one was really focusing on it,  so I developed a program in child identification to focus more in this space and it kept growing from there.” 

Her landmark studies were well received by agencies world-wide because of the ability to conduct operationally relevant research, resulting in real-world data. She has since developed a research program focused on improving algorithm and practitioner performance for child identification.

For practitioners, this has resulted in additional requests locally and internationally to develop training programs specific to child identification, as well as guidelines or standards on how the face of a child changes. Dr Michalski has also completed a book chapter for a practitioner textbook and several additional studies including leading an international practitioner proficiency test on behalf of the European Network of Forensic Science Institutes.

For algorithms, it has meant demonstrating ways agencies could improve the performance of the facial recognition system they currently use, but also developing an algorithm in-house. The algorithm developed within the biometrics team has been shown to be world-leading for child identification and has already been used operationally within one Australian agency with immense success.

Dr Michalski’s work can be used in the identification of children who are missing, exploited, kidnapped, trafficked, and radicalised. It is also useful for Australia’s Smartgate border control system (eGate), passport renewal periods for children and decisions by the UN on appropriate ages to collect biometric data from children.

Dr Michalski said one of her proudest accomplishments in the field was "completing a PhD that people actually wanted to read and to turn that work into a larger program where I get to work in a multi-disciplinary team of experts that makes the work we do possible".

“One of those experts has developed his own facial recognition algorithm and it’s being used operationally by a government agency with success on images of children, so it’s exciting that our research and development actually gets used and benefits government agencies," she said. 

Dr Michalski has recently expanded her work interests to also focus on post-mortem identification another challenging area in facial biometrics important to Defence and national security.