Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


Eye in the Sky III: How Technology Makes It Happen

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By Brian James Kirk

Citywide video surveillance is a relatively new field that is changing rapidly due to recent technological advances. The first closed-circuit television system was deployed in New York in 1968. It wasn't until 1996 that the first Internet Protocol-based video cameras were introduced, allowing video to stream over the net and laying the foundation for advanced surveillance networks like in Philadelphia. Since the first basic networks, monitoring technology, image quality and bandwidth capability have rapidly advanced.

Camera monitoring is key to a successful surveillance program, say officials and experts, such as The Urban Institute's Nancy LaVigne, who chose to study Baltimore and Chicago's surveillance programs for their active monitoring units.

"The true power of cameras is to send the message to would-be criminals that there are more sets of eyes and you need monitoring to make that happen," she says.

In Philadelphia, police video monitoring staffing is contingent on the number of light- and restricted-duty officers who are available and not working with other divisions in the department. On one Thursday morning in early February, four officers watched the city's 117 cameras, eying areas that were selected using crime data.

They day is coming when video analytics technology might be able to assist camera units like Philadelphia's that don't have the manpower to constantly watch all the cameras. Municipalities are deploying technology that can monitor virtual perimeters, alert officers when graffiti appears on a wall and track loiterers. Facial recognition, an expensive and cutting-edge feature, can cross-check video images with database records of mugshots. These algorithms can be easily added to existing cameras through simple firmware upgrades, vendors tell Metropolis.

Philadelphia is already taking advantage of new tools to empower its surveillance unit.


Parking Authority camera

Cameras attached to Philadelphia Parking Authority vehicles record license plates and compare them against vehicle investigation records, a technology that police are considering implementing on the wider camera network. When the city flipped the switch on the Parking Authority's license plate recognition system, it began spotting suspects almost immediately.

"I think they had 15 hits in the first half-hour that it ran. Stolen cars, people under investigation," says Chief Information Officer of Communications Joe James, who oversees camera technology in the city's Division of Technology.

Last June, the Police Department began testing Shot Spotter sound monitoring technology that triangulates gun fire and can automatically focus a camera where shots ring out. Video feeds can be transmitted to the police video monitoring unit from the city's new Homeland Security-funded mobile command post and from its helicopters. The Police Department hopes to someday stream video feeds from the surveillance network to patrol cars and handheld devices.

Then, there's simply image quality improvements.

"There's an increasing number of megapixels appearing in consumer products at the moment. That technology trickles down into the professional camera space," says Cisco Director of Product Marketing Steve Collen, who works with municipalities on public safety surveillance networks.

But as those megapixels increase -- Philadelphia's network of cameras utilizes 2.0 megapixels image sensors -- so do bandwidth needs, a lesson that the city learned early in the implementation of its surveillance network.

Since 2006, police officials have extended project deadlines because of bandwidth issues. The high-quality video images would respond slowly when panned or zoomed and streams would black out, a result of reliance on wireless-only data transmission.


Earthlink network

To address these issues, the Division of Technology developed a hybrid mesh network that allows wireless cameras to transmit images to nearby fiberoptic base stations, larger pipes for sending and receiving data.

The city's planned $2 million acquisition of the wireless network once owned by Earthlink will further improve connectivity, allowing it to reach neighborhoods where fiber isn't available.

"When I got here, before I had even signed the papers, [Deputy Mayor of Public Safety] Everett Gillison's neck was bulging with frustration," says Chief Technology Officer Allan Frank, who heads the Division of Technology. "We made that [network] change, now we're in execution mode."

The build-out of base network infrastructure has been vital to the consistency and expansion Chicago's surveillance program, says the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communications spokesperson Jennifer Martinez.

"Spending the time and money to set up a solid infrastructure allowed us to expand at minimal cost to taxpayers," she says. "Technology is constantly changing. We want to be able to grow and expand as the years go on."

Last year, Chicago unveiled a major upgrade to its computer-aided dispatch system, paid for by a Homeland Security grant, which included technology that enabled 911 operators to instantly view cameras within proximity of emergency calls. Call-takers can see what's happening in the field and can verify, to the extent that a camera's line-of-sight allows, how imperative a call might be.

Of emerging technologies, video integration with its computer dispatch system is considered by Deputy Police Commissioner John Gaittens to be critical to improving Philadelphia's surveillance unit. But even Gaittens -- who has been with Philadelphia's camera unit since it was set up -- says that rapidly-advancing technologies that aide crime-fighting are not a replacement for officers.

"We would certainly like to see more [cameras]," he says, pausing for emphasis. "But understand, if I have the choice between 100 more cameras or 100 more cops, we're going to have more uniforms out there."


Brian James Kirk is a Philadelphia journalist and co-founder of Technically Philly.


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