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Academic partnership tracks effectiveness of GPS-assisted offender monitoring

Erin Gibbs Van Brunschot recognized as Peak Scholar for impact of her work in the community

Criminologist Erin Gibbs Van Brunschot collaborated with geomatics pioneer Gérard Lachapelle to study GPS monitoring in the community. Photo by Riley Brandt

By Andrea Kingwell

The limitations of GPS technology may prove only mildly frustrating to athletes tracking an indoor run but could, by contrast, have life-and-death consequences in the case of GPS monitors surveilling the whereabouts of high-risk offenders.

To study the boundaries — and capabilities — of GPS-assisted offender tracking, the Alberta justice and policing communities reached out to a dream team of University of Calgary academics: criminologist Erin Gibbs Van Brunschot and geomatics pioneer Gérard Lachapelle.

Gibbs Van Brunschot, currently head of the Department of Sociology, took on the human behaviour side of the equation, seeking to answer questions about whether GPS tracking acts as a deterrent and if certain types of offenders are better suited than others to monitoring.

Collaboration with community opened the door for in-depth research

To do that work, she and her graduate student Tamara Humphrey required high-level security clearance and pored over police background files for nearly three years. They compared monitored offenders with others who were not similarly tracked to get a sense of how GPS might contribute to public safety.

It was a unique opportunity to work with the community. “In fact we worked right in the community — in the police station — and this really opened the door for our research,” says Gibbs Van Brunschot, who earned a Peak Scholar award for the impact her work has had and its reach beyond the academy.

The cases were difficult; the stories tragic. As Gibbs Van Brunschot says, “Trying experiences and decisions made early on in the lives of these individuals often set them on a path that may or may not be overcome by current circumstances.”

What they learned about monitoring is that that the situation is complex, and that monitoring is not a cure-all. “You can’t simply put a monitor on and expect them not to reoffend,” Gibbs Van Brunschot says.

Sensors used to fine-tune GPS tracking technology

Working closely in collaboration with Gibbs Van Brunschot, Gérard Lachapelle at the Schulich School of Engineering focused on the aspects of GPS tracking related to technological rather than human fallibility.

“My role was to assess conditions under which the GPS tracking didn’t work well, and most important to make recommendations regarding whether a future system could provide better performance,” says Lachapelle, professor emeritus in the geomatics engineering department.

“We knew the technology had limitations,” says Lachapelle. “For one, offenders live indoors, so the use of GPS becomes a challenge.”

Lachapelle and his team did not need to access offenders or their files directly. Instead, they worked both in the indoors and outdoors, working through, as he called them, catch-me-if-you-can scenarios. 

“What we learned — the improvement we discovered — is that adding sensors that are self-contained and do not rely on external electromagnetic signals, give parameters and metrics to determine what people are doing over and above just where they are,” Lachapelle says.

These sensors can be incorporated in the GPS technology, the ankle bracelet, and augment GPS. They can determine whether a person is standing, moving, laying down, or running.

Huge potential in GPS monitoring for seniors

Interestingly for Lachapelle, the innovation in wearable sensors has potential beyond tracking offenders. He cites their use in sport, for one, but more compelling for him is their utility for monitoring seniors.

“Think about someone with Alzheimer’s who wanders, or the senior living alone worried about falling. A GPS unit augmented with sensors could pick up where they are and what they are doing,” Lachapelle says.

One lasting consequence of Lachapelle and Gibbs Van Brunschot’s collaboration is an appreciation for each other’s expertise, and for the complexities of the cases facing the Calgary Police Service and the Alberta justice community.

“This was the first time I worked so closely with someone in the Faculty of Arts,” Lachapelle says. “Erin was a wonderful collaborator; we had some quite incredible experiences working with various law enforcement agencies.”

“I loved working with Gérard and his group,” Gibbs Van Brunschot says. “I think it opened up both of our eyes to different elements we weren’t used to seeing.”

Gibbs Van Brunschot's work was recognized in 2016 when she was nominated as a Peak Scholar in Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Knowledge Engagement, joining a community of scholars whose work has had an impact outside of the institution. As a University of Calgary patent holder, Lachapelle was welcomed to the Peak Scholars community in 2016.