Monday, October 31, 2016

Using Google Alerts for Crime Analysis

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

I might be showing my age but I can remember a time before smartphones, before the Internet, and before home computers. I can remember searching card catalogs at libraries that were actually drawers full of cards.

I can also remember reference publications that indexed magazine articles in big dusty volumes.  If you were searching for an article about a particular topic you could search through these books and find a list of magazine articles that contained them. It always seemed to be my luck that the library I was at never had any of these magazines on their shelves. However, they could get me a copy though an inter-library loan in a few weeks. So much for timely research.

Search engines like Google or Bing have turned this on it's head. Now, anyone with a web browser and an Internet connection can query a search engine and find relevant articles with just a click.

Previously, I covered Improving Your Searches With Boolean Operators In that post I looked at ways you could improve the likelihood that your search will find the information your looking for.

As powerful as Google is, wouldn't it be nice if it could keep a watch on the Internet and let you know anytime it finds the search terms you specify? After all, isn't automation what computers are good for? Actually, it can with a feature called Google Alerts.

Google Alerts lets you specify search terms that it will monitor Internet sites for and when it finds them it will either send you an email or it will put them into an RSS feed that you can monitor using an RSS feed reading application.

Let's look at an example of how I use Google Alerts in my workflow. I like to monitor the Internet for news stories that mention the community where I work, Killeen, Texas. It's nice to have a heads up when these stories come out. While I already monitor most of the local news outlets via RSS and Twitter, there are also mentions of the community in other news outlets I wouldn't normally monitor.

For instance, I got a Google Alert email that indicated my search terms of "Killeen, TX" was used in a small town news website in Indiana. When I followed the link to the story in the site the quoted news article was about a recent highway drug interdiction arrest where a resident of our fair city got nabbed with a load of drugs on his way to points north.

The agency that made the arrest had not thought to contact us so I looked them up and gave them a call about this person. I was able to give them information regarding cases we'd previously worked on this person so they could make this information a part of their investigation. I was also able to add the information from their case to the intelligence information we held on this subject.

Here are some ideas for Alerts to set to get you started:

  • Your agency name - to catch news stories about your department
  • Crime M.O.'s such as "metal theft" or "bank robbery"
  • A crime analysis tool such as "GIS"
  • If your agency is working a high profile case, the name of the victim or suspect
  • And of course "crime analysis"

You'll need a Google account if you don't already have one. Once you establish that, head over to the Google Alerts page to get started. Once there you'll be given a set of options. You can enter your search terms, pick the type of sites you want to monitor such as news, blogs, discussions, etc. Then you pick language, region, periodicity, and how you want to get the alerts.

A neat feature is that once you enter your search terms, you'll see a sample of the types of entries you'll get with that search term. This works really well for modifying your terms in real time to see what type of results you will likely get. Once you enter an alert you can also use the Manage Your Alerts option to modify or delete alerts.

What types of alerts would you likely find useful?

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