Innovative data-gathering techniques in criminology

By | March 21, 2024
Innovative data-gathering techniques in criminology

Innovative data-gathering techniques in criminology

The internet and new technological innovations have changed the world of data collection in criminology. Not only have the investigators’ tools gotten more sophisticated but so have the criminals’ methods of evading detection. A new generation of researchers is needed to take advantage of all the tools that are available. Today, there are still those who prefer the traditional methods of data collection and investigation. 


Newer technologies, such as GPS, virtual environments, and the internet are useful in providing researchers with the where, when, and why of criminal behavior. Other innovations in research include neuropsychological measurements and time-space budgets, which have developed in the last few years and are highly accessible to criminologists. 


GPS data collection


GPS systems are found in almost every new vehicle, on every cell phone, and widely used by anyone who needs to get somewhere without getting lost. For criminologists, GPS systems let police collect information on vehicle locations without the need to do surveillance or to tail the vehicle. This information can be uploaded from the GPS and provides data on the location and routes of a vehicle of interest. This evidence can then be used as part of the theory of how a crime was committed. 

Sometimes, high-level crimes require investigators to assist in a case that covers thousands of miles. The GPS is useful in seeing where the vehicle may have made stops or how long it took to make a trip. 

Other ways law enforcement has used GPS data to solve and prevent crime include:

Asset-tracking software

Police have collaborated with residents of certain communities that experience a high level of theft of packages delivered to their homes. They have used a GPS tracker inside a fake package and left it outside to see what would happen. The software that came with the GPS let the resident know that the package had moved from its location and then the police were called. The data from the asset-tracking software led them to a suspicious vehicle filled with other stolen packages from nearby areas. The suspects were caught with a plethora of evidence connecting them to credit card fraud, drug possession, identity theft, as well as theft of private property. The data collected from a resident’s GPS tracker led to the arrest of criminals who had been on a crime spree for weeks. 

Tracking down criminals

Police put a GPS tracker in a vehicle that they suspected was stolen and tracked the perpetrator to a house the next day that was burglarized. They arrested him after the vehicle was tracked. They received permission from the owner of the car to put the tracker on the vehicle, and, because of the evidence gathered, the burglar was brought to trial for several other home invasions that he could be connected to.


Minimizing high-risk pursuits

There is technology available in the form of a GPS tracker that police can launch at a vehicle of interest that allows them to follow their location without the need for high-speed pursuits. This is not only safer for the police officers, but for the community at large, and reduces the risk of property damage. There are still some bugs to iron out with the technology, but this is another example of GPS data allowing law enforcement to track criminals at a safe distance.

Stop thieves known as “porch pirates”

GPS systems can be used on a much larger scale to catch dozens of criminals by collaborating with delivery companies, like Amazon. In this example, police and Amazon got together to put tracking devices in decoys set up all over the city. The GPS software notified the police when the packages were moved, and dozens of arrests were made. 

GPS data is useful for compiling valuable data on crimes that help criminologists develop theories on how a crime was committed, where, and what. This technology is still not being used to its full potential, but it is being tested in certain areas and will hopefully save lives and property in the future. This type and other forms of data collection are part of the curriculum in a criminology study in Canada. Accredited programs from online schools, like Wilfrid Laurier University, provide those interested in a career in criminal justice with a flexible class schedule and the ability to learn at their own pace. 

Social media

The term Facebook when put into a search involving law databases, like Westlaw, can result in thousands of search results while other social media terms, like Instagram and Twitter, can result in hundreds. The world of social media has added a new dimension to the investigative techniques of law enforcement because it is evidence that lasts forever. A picture of an individual with stolen merchandise on their personal page is better evidence than the word of mouth of a witness who has no proof. The information that social media accounts generate refers to a practice known as open-source intelligence (OSINT). 

More criminals are using social media for bragging rights, to taunt their enemies, and to inadvertently flash their stolen property or cash. For gang activity and investigations into guns and drugs, the amount of information that can be gleaned from social media accounts is plentiful and fruitful. In terms of research, social media accounts offer a glimpse into socioeconomic factors of gang activity, as well as types of gangs, rivalries, and the level of criminal activity. An example of how social media can be used to gather data for criminal cases is the pictures that are posted of members of gangs, their jewelry, tattoos, and rap videos. The proliferation of social media use within gang communities has given law enforcement a rich source of information on the hierarchy of certain gangs, who is fighting with whom, and what areas are being targeted. Rap videos posted on Instagram often showcase gang signs, members and associates, and, in some cases, stolen money and property. 

Along with other research methods, criminologists have been able to figure out the organization of certain gangs, names, and signals, as well as memberships. They can make predictions on when violence may erupt in certain areas or which targets to focus on for major project search warrants and wiretaps. Social media research methods also played a large part in gathering information about the January 6th insurrection on the Capitol in Washington where investigators were able to capture photos and videos of persons of interest. 

Large events, online threats, weapon possessions, sexual assaults, murders, and other crimes have been prosecuted using evidence that has been collected on social media. 

Police acquire open-source intelligence through:

  • targeted online searches or manual searches
  • complex algorithms and surveillance programs that mine, classify, and store information long-term

The information is publicly accessible, but the content is so vast that it would take years to sift through all of it, which is why data-mining software is so useful in collecting data for research questions. 

Criminologists conducting research into groups of individuals who commit crimes together and have some sort of organization can be searched on social media accounts, even if the account isn’t under their name. 


Neurocriminology studies brain-imaging techniques and principles from neuroscience to understand, predict and prevent crime. It sounds like the plot of a good science fiction movie, but it is an emerging technique in criminology. 

Space-time budget method

The space-time budget method collects data on an hour-by-hour basis from participants four days before they are to arrive for their interview. Criminological events, such as offending and victimization, are included in the data collected. 

This method can be very useful in criminology by enabling:

  • the study of situational causes of crime and victimization
  • detailed measurement of theoretical concepts, such as individual lifestyles and individual routine activities 
  • the study of adolescents’ whereabouts, which extends the traditional focus on residential neighborhoods. 

There are many ways to collect data for research and which one a researcher chooses depends on the question that is posed. Some examples of research methods include:

  • surveys
  • interviews
  • tests
  • physiological assessments
  • observations
  • existing record reviews
  • biological samples


Surveys consist of a set of questions for participants that can be administered in person, through the mail, by telephone, or online. Surveys can be given to individuals or can be administered to a group. Open-ended questions are used to get more fulsome information or multiple-choice questions to force a specific answer. Surveys are used to gather data, such as:

  • demographics
  • health
  • education
  • opinions
  • beliefs
  • attitudes
  • skills

With the introduction of the internet, surveys can be administered to more people across many regions to gain a wider range of information.


Interviews involve one researcher and one participant in a one-on-one setting, whether it is in person or over the phone. Interviews are also possible online using electronic meeting services, such as Zoom, or Microsoft teams. Innovations in technology have allowed researchers in criminology to reach participants who may be reluctant to meet in person or have issues with travel. The questions posed to the participant are specific to the question being posed in the research and could be the same as any survey questions that may have started the process in the first place. 


Tests are mental or physical tasks that have predetermined answers, and there is a normal standard that has been determined. Performance on the test is used to compare with others who have taken the same test. Some reasons tests are used in research are to determine:

  • participant’s aptitude
  • skill
  • knowledge
  • health
  • mental status 

These tests can be given on paper, electronically, or in person, such as standardized tests. 

Physiological assessments

Physiological assessments measure physical characteristics, such as blood pressure, physical strength, and heart rate. These assessments are not used regularly in criminology, but, for certain crimes, a physiological examination may be helpful in determining factors that can affect criminal activity.  


Observations can be direct or indirect. Direct observations are recordings made from observing participants in the act of doing the set task that the research is focused on. The data is collected as the participants are engaged in routine behaviors, and, instead of relying on the participant’s account of the task, researchers can see for themselves.

There are six methods of observation:

  • Structured observation: This is where the researcher records behavior that is naturally occurring, and there is no outside interference.
  • Covert observation: Behaviors are recorded in a manipulated environment where there is a potential for interference from an outside source, like the researcher. 
  • Participant observation: Participants can give informed consent, and the reactions are more likely to be genuine.
  • Overt observation: These observations are less likely to be meaningful because the participant’s behavior may not be genuine. These observations are also considered less ethical as participants are unaware and unable to give informed consent. 
  • Unstructured observation: This type of observation is not used often in criminology but can be used in the infrequent case of the researcher watching participants in an unstructured environment and recording their reactions.

Record reviews

Record reviews involve the researcher examining previous records from data that was extracted from previous surveys, tests, observations, interviews, or other newer forms of data gathering, such as GPS and social media information. These records are either in the public domain or are private records that may need permission to open. One example would be juvenile criminal records or psychological testing results.  

Biological samples

Biological samples are often collected when there is a conviction in court and can be blood, urine, or saliva samples taken from an individual. These samples are used to measure physiological information that can be used in research data. 

When it comes to data collection in the criminal justice system, there are different ways to gather information. Innovations in technology, such as GPS tracking, data mining, and the use of social media, provide criminologists with additional avenues to investigate. The use of these newer methods, with more traditional data-compiling methods, allows for accurate and focused research. 

Category: Law