Smart cities becoming a reality

Technology takes city wide surveillance to the next level
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Monday, April 3, 2017

YARMOUTH, Maine—When Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis arrived to Boylston Street on April 15, 2013 – shortly after two explosions killed three people and injured hundreds more near the finish line of the Boston Marathon—he said one thing: “First job, get on the video.”

Davis recounted in a PBS documentary that year how, in the fraught minutes after the bombings, police needed to begin the tedious task of collecting individual video surveillance footage from nearly 200 businesses in the surrounding areas.

Today, cities, police departments and local businesses are exploring new ways, and seeing the benefit, of coordinating their video surveillance. In 2005, New York City announced the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, which—among other things—started the project to funnel video and information from thousands of surveillance cameras into a central command center. When major metropolitan areas in the U.S. are talking about being a safe and a smart city, they’re talking about law enforcement, local businesses and private initiatives working together to find ways to link up, deter crime and increase response time.

Kathryn Bartunek, a security and engineering consultant with AECOM, says that the term “smart city” is not new or novel, but is a trending term today as technology advances and becomes more ubiquitous. Smart technology, Bartunek explains, “includes Internet of Things, predictive analysis, machine learning, geospatial technology, mobile laser scanning, and BIM [Building Information Modeling] technologies.” 

She lists six factors that have contributed to the push for metropolitan areas to go “smart.” They include continued R&D, reduced technology costs, lower cost and higher benefit evidence including emergency response, a shifting generational tolerance to open source data, increased investment and public demand.

Yet challenges to achieving these “smart cities”—where cameras can count crowds, sensors can “hear” gunshots and law enforcement can be dispatched quicker—is finding the right balance between cost-effective policies and community engagement.

One of the first considerations of cities that want to upgrade their security systems is cost.

Alex Richardson, a communications analyst with IHS, says that it is up to cities to find creative solutions in funding a major project like this—it won’t just be covered by taxes.

“Typically the funding is not going to be from one source. It will usually be from a couple and especially if you can get several groups involved, that just makes your funding pool bigger,” he says. 

In 2016, Columbus, Ohio beat out 78 other mid-size cities for a $40 million grant from the Department of Transportation for their smart-city proposal. In a statement from the DOT, those federal funds were in addition to an already raised amount of $90 million from private partners. Another $10 million was pledged from Vulcan Inc.—the business and philanthropic company for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The department also wrote on its website that there is $2 billion in federal funds earmarked for smart-city projects.

Another case of a successful “smart-city” program—but on the more focused angle of smart security—with a private and public partnership can be found in Detroit, Mich.

In January 2016, Detroit Police partnered with eight local businesses—typically gas stations or 24-hour convenience stores—in a pilot program called Project Greenlight. The businesses agreed to invest in high quality, HD video cameras, a high-speed Internet connection and signage that they are Project Greenlight participants. The feed from the video would go to a central command center set up by the DPD and an officer would make a visit to the business once a week to check in. The goal was to create a direct link between a potential target and law enforcement. The success was almost immediate, businesses reported a fifty percent reduction in crime. Within a year, 100 businesses had signed up for the program.

What made the project possible was a unique partnership with Genetec, a provider of video surveillance on a cloud-based network. Genetec sought to simplify the service of sending disparate video feeds to a central command center. Pervez Siddiqi, director of strategic markets for Genetec, says their company moved from creating individual products to providing a service, or a “bundle.”

About three and a half years ago, Genetec offered "Stratocast" as a cloud-hosted video surveillance service. This allowed small and medium sized businesses to first invest in high-quality video surveillance, but then be able to view that video on multiple Internet-connected devices. Before, these businesses would usually go to their local store and buy a few cameras and set it up on a closed-circuit monitor. The problem with this is that storage of video would run out very quickly. Hooking up the video to the cloud rectifies this.

Siddiqi says that with the cloud, the transfer of information over a large server and the ability for different parties to access it from remote locations is appealing when advertising cooperation between different enterprises, such as local businesses and law enforcement. “You’re going to see many more cloud enabled applications in the security space in the coming months and years for the same reason,” he says.

Yet increasing video surveillance comes to naught without the proper infrastructure to analyze the data and a new type of emergency response from police, fire and EMS. “Once you launch the program the bigger issue is engaging the community and being able to manage those communications,” Siddiqi adds. “You’ve got to put a resource on it, a program around it—an infrastructure. Infrastructure not from a technology point of view, but once people start calling, who do they talk to, how do you handle that, for example.”

It’s this partnership between private enterprise and public institutions that is so critical.

Steve Surfaro, an industry liaison with Axis Communications, a leader in the field of video surveillance technology, describes a commendable Private and Public partnership (P2P) initiative in St. Louis, Mo., between the private company Blue Line Technology and local police to increase safety and decrease violent crimes against convenience store operators.

In a pilot program with one store, which had reported four armed robberies in the four previous months, a smart camera was installed with facial recognition technology. The police were able to upload suspect faces and locked the doors with an automatic electromagnet if the faces were recognized. Customers approaching the store would naturally look into the camera. If someone is wearing a mask or intentionality turning away, Surfaro says, the doors lock. “It actually eliminated armed robberies within the study period.”

Surfaro also highlights Axis Communications’ work on Houston's Super Bowl LIVE event—a 10-day festival leading up to the Super Bowl with rides, concerts and different events that was prepared to see nearly one million visitors—and their partnership with the police and mayor as their formula for success.

“We had the right liaison partner who works for both the chief of police and the mayor, which I think is rare,” he says. “If you have both, and the mayor is thinking along the same lines and obviously you’re the host city, you want to absolutely provide for the maximum safety and do your best to make it a smart and safe city.”

While police orchestrated where to put surveillance cameras, Surfaro explains how those cameras went beyond just transmitting images. Equipped with thermal imaging, which measures the temperature of an object or person and is able to cut through shadowing or bad lighting, Surfaro says they are able to detect if someone is lying on the ground, as the thermal detection can view through obstructed views like foliage, or if there is an explosion or fire. Additionally, cameras they set up on stages during some of the evening events and concerts transmitted in extremely low light.

“Basically the EMS were looking into the crowd using one of the cameras to see if there were any people that needed medical assistance, that's how they responded,” Surfaro says.

Yet challenges abound for cities that want to go smart, setting up a command center, deciding where to store all the data—preferably a combination of on site storage and cloud storage—investing in quality surveillance technology but staying within budget.

Important for cities to consider is installing or upgrading cameras with analytics, which includes a whole host of features such as facial recognition, crime mapping, acoustic signatures that pull out aggressive speech patters or gunshots and explosions, and more.

“There are more and more providers out there who are offering different analytics platforms,” says Richardson, the communications analyst. “I think that is going to be a key technology trend going forward."

How will personnel fit into a new smart city that has virtual eyes and ears everywhere? Richardson says it may not be an issue of cutting manpower, but making existing workers more efficient. Additionally, Richardson also sees the future as implementing social media and sensors—this will require more specially trained personnel.

“In an emergency call-taking center, it's great if you can send video or social media posts into the command center or into the call taking center,” Richardson explains, “but current call takers, they aren't trained to process that data. In the future, when you have video and text and social media posts coming in, you need a specialized call taker who can handle that type of data.

“On one hand it does make existing personnel more efficient, but the other, is there an opportunity to have more newer, more specialized roles?”

But on top of organizing, filtering and responding to increased data, governments and citizens continue to debate the blurry line between public and private information. Bartunek, the security and engineering consultant, says that residents will need to be assured that cybersecurity, protecting this data, is up to snuff.

“The aggregation of large amounts of data presents security and privacy challenges, and issues around privacy must be managed in order to realize the benefits ‘smart’ technologies provide,” she says.

In 2015, following the Snowden revelations about the NSA’s bulk data collecting program, a Pew research survey found that American’s “have mixed—and sometimes conflicting—views about government surveillance programs.”

Using the example of NYC’s Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, Police commissioner Ray Kelly in 2009 announced that the department would destroy all video footage after 30 days, in the interest of citizen privacy. 

For cities looking to improve the quality of life for residents, the constant evolution and prevalence of new technology will make it almost untenable for metropolitan areas not to update their services and security.