Friday, June 28, 2013

Mobile oblique imagery

By now, I suspect readers understand that oblique aerial imagery has some real value for public safety personnel.  When the chips are down, however, you may need that data quickly, with a minimal amount of futzing, and without access to the computer back on your desktop. I am convinced that in public safety technology, the future lies in applications optimized for mobile data computers, tablets, and smartphones.

Oblique imagery dips a toe in this water now, and the mobile tools will continue to evolve. Here are a few examples. The first image is the historic Kennard House in Lincoln, depicted in this screenshot from my iPad mini running Pictometry Connect Mobile. The second image is the same scene, on my iPhone using CrimeView NEARme.

The next big deal in mobile imagery is location-based services: delivering the images to you based on your mobile device's known location. In the world of tech today applications must be mobile, and this is particularly true in public safety where the workforce is mobile and the incidents dynamic. Pictometry Connect Mobile and CrimeView NEARme are already location aware: a tap centers the map on your current location. Not far off will be the next evolution of this concept, putting the images in motion with the user, perhaps even orienting the viewpoint based on the device's direction of travel, providing more of a sensation of moving through the image without any need by the user to reorient the viewpoint.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Oblique imagery for firefighting

This week's series is about the value of oblique aerial photography for public safety. I would hope that yesterday's post explaining how this imagery might be used for planning and executing a high-risk arrest warrant or search warrant makes sense. It should be pretty easy to translate this to firefighting.  If that house were involved in a structure fire, these same images would provide valuable information to a Springfield battalion chief commanding the fireground.

A great use for oblique imagery in the fire service is for response planning. Fire departments generally identify those locations that present heightened risk, and create plans in advance for use in the event of an incident. Places such as manufacturing plants, schools, medical institutions, high-rise buildings, and apartment complexes are common candidates for such planning processes.

Here in Lincoln, our fire companies are assigned specific places for pre-planning. The company visits the facility in person, inspects to find the location of such things as the alarm panel, Knox box, electrical service, hazardous materials and so forth. A document is produced containing this information. These so-called "pre-plans" are available on the mobile data computers in the apparatus and in the command vehicle. Oblique imagery could be nice to include in a pre-plan.

Let's say, for example, you are an incident commander at the Fairbault, Minnesota Fire Department.  Among the places you'd like to pre-plan is the headquarters of SAGE Electrochromics, Inc., makers of an incredibly interesting product, SageGlass. Your planning results in a .pdf document that contains a floor plan of the facility, the emergency contact information, and the location of standpipes, utilities, exits, alarm panel, stairwells, and so forth.  Wouldn't you think that this page would be a valuable addition to the package? It was about a ten minute job to make it this morning, including a few pauses to sip my coffee.

Click image to enlarge

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Oblique imagery for police work

I'm blogging this week about the value of oblique aerial photos for public safety agencies. Today, I am going to describe a typical use case for policing. My example deals with the planning and execution of an arrest warrant (hypothetical, that is) for an individual who is believed to be in a house in south-central Springfield, MO.  This is a common activity in police agencies all over the country, and one that usually involves pre-planning, including a briefing for the officers who will be involved in the warrant service.

Gathering information about the premise is always part of the preparation. An undercover drive-by would reveal the home's appearance from the street.  The view would be much like this screenshot from Google Streetview. It is a two story frame house with columns on the front stoop supporting an overhang above the front door. There is an asphalt driveway along the left side of the house.

A conventional aerial orthophoto would shed a little more light on the target  (the house in the center with the green shingles). The parcel is long and narrow. The driveway goes back to a sizable concrete apron at the back, where a  large white-roofed outbuilding sits. If you go under cover of darkness, take care not to fall in the neighbor's swimming pool.

The oblique image from Pictometry (via Bing Maps) shows the arrangement of these buildings even better. This view is oriented towards the north, showing the alpha face of the house. Note the front columns. There are several windows visible on the south side of that outbuilding.  That might be an indication that it is an apartment or guest house, rather than a garage. There is a small above-ground pool at the northwest corner of the lot.

Rotating around to the bravo side and viewing from the west shows more significant detail.  The outbuilding appears to be composed of a one story section on the south with a door and a chimney (a guest house or apartment, perhaps?), and a double garage in the north portion. Above the garage is a second story with windows.  This could be part of a second residence, or it might be something like a workshop above the garage. There is a low shed attached to the north side of the garage. The small yard between the main house and the "guest house" is enclosed by a substantial fence. We could continue to rotate around to the other two compass points and gather even more information.

I don't know about you, but if I'm going to this place to look for a bad guy, these oblique images are providing me with a lot of very important detail that I wouldn't get from just driving by for a peek, or from a standard aerial orthophoto. Why on earth would I just draw a freehand diagram of this property on a dry erase board, when I could pull up these images and show everyone involved in the case more precisely what we will be dealing with at the scene? And yet, exactly that is going to happen dozens of times today in police departments all over the country.

This is just one example. Hopefully, you can see that oblique imagery would be valuable in many other circumstances: setting up a search area for an Alzheimer's patient who has walked away from home, establishing a perimeter around a building with a barricaded suspect, planning a special event at a public park, visualizing the area around a string of storage unit burglaries, and so forth.

When you've got a little time to prepare, it's hard to beat the oblique imagery from Pictometry, Bing, or Google for getting the lay of the land.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Oblique details

This is Part II of this week's series on oblique photos, a type of aerial photography that is of particular value in public safety applications. Lincoln's oblique imagery is from Pictometry, a firm that specializes in aerial photography and oblique imagery. Not only do Pictometry images provide a great perspective for public safety use, they are also shot from all four compass points, so you can actually rotate in 90 degree increments to get the view from each direction. Pictometry is available in Microsoft's Bing Maps for many parts of the United States, where it goes by the name "Bird's Eye View." The photos in Bing may be slightly older and at slightly lower resolution than Pictometry customers' latest imagery, but it is still mighty good.

Don't confuse oblique aerial imagery with some of those extruded building cityscapes or the computer-generated 3D perspective in some mapping applications.  Oblique aerial images are real photos, not simulated renderings.

Bing Maps Bird's Eye View isn't available everywhere, but a large percentage of the U.S. population is covered, and it's not just the big metropolitan areas.  This graphic shows the coverage area. Some surprisingly small towns are under the blue, such as Grand Island, NE; Bartlesville, OK; Fort Dodge, IA; Blacksburg, VA; Forsyth, MO; and Alexandria, LA, to name a few. To see if Bird's Eye is in your area, just search in Bing Maps. Be sure to turn on either "Automatic" or "Bird's Eye" up at the top left of the map image.

You might also check Google. Within the past year or so, Google has started adding oblique imagery of its own. Here is a coverage map you can check. With both Google and Bing, you'll probably want to remove some clutter.  Look for this little triangle in Google Maps, and click it to slide the sidebar out of the way.  In Bing Maps, you can do the same, but you can also click the link to "Full Screen" at the top right-center of the map to really maximize the image.

Once you've got your map centered, zoomed to your liking, you may want to grab a screen shot. The old-fashioned way is to use CTRL-PrintScreen, which copies the contents of your screen to your clipboard, after which you would paste the screenshot into some other application.  I prefer to use screen capture software.  Snagit is my favorite, but I also use Google's Screen Capture and Awesome Screenshot, which are browser add-ins.  There are tons of free-or-cheap apps and browser plugins for screen shots, and everyone should have one of these.

Check with your GIS manager, County Engineer, County Assessor, or Public Works department to see if your city or county are Pictometry customers already. If not, look to see if either Google or Bing Maps have oblique aerial imagery in your neck of the woods. If you have access to obliques from any of these sources, they can be incredibly valuable to police and fire, and we will explore a couple of typical use cases later this week.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Get the picture

Many readers of the Director's Desk are police officers and crime analysts. They aren't just local. I hear from them all the time from places like Anchorage, Tampa, Lexington, Seattle--basically all over the country and even internationally from time to time. I am also getting a growing number of visits from professionals in other public safety domains: fire, EMS, emergency management, and communications. Nothing pleases me more than to spark an idea, or help someone else in these fields.

This week, I've decided to use my blog to market what I hope will be a helpful tip to my colleagues. It will be old news to many, but I continue to believe many others have yet to get the picture. A Friday conversation with two executives from the firm Pictometry reinforced my belief that the field of public safety is not fully leveraging the power of oblique imagery. I've mentioned this technology in a few past posts, but my intention this week is to be much more descriptive about what it is, how to find it, and how it might be used in public safety.

What, you may ask, is oblique imagery?  It is aerial photography from an angle, as opposed to standard orthophotography, which is the view from directly overhead. Oblique images lend a perspective to the scene that is very valuable in public safety applications. Notice the differences in these two images of the most recognizable home in Nebraska, the first a standard orthophoto, the second an oblique view from Pictometry.

Lincoln police officers, dispatchers, and firefighters have access to oblique imagery in several ways.  We are a customer of Pictometry, a firm that is the leader in this type of imagery, so every few years, a fresh set of imagery is acquired.  Pictometery imagery is integrated into many of our GIS applications, such as the City's Public Safety GIS Viewer, NEARme, ORION Vela (the mapping component of our 911 software), CrimeView Dashboard, and (soon) FireView Dashboard.  We also have access to Pictometry Online, a web-based viewer with many tools for tasks such as searching, measuring, clipping, and exporting images.

Oblique imagery, however, is available to a very large percentage of public safety agencies, even if they are not direct customers of Pictometry.  As the week unfolds, I will explain how this imagery can be accessed, and give some specific examples of how it can be used to improve the safety of both police officers and firefighters.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Follow the sign

I was in Washington, DC for a meeting of the National Institute if Justice (NIJ) Scientific Review Panel (SRP). The NIJ is the research arm of the United States Department of Justice, and the SRP advises the NIJ on criminal justice research proposals. I am one of four practitioners on this panel, which meets one time each year. This is the second year of my three year term.

While in Washington last year, I snapped a photo that led to a little fun on my blog, so this year I was also on the hunt for a sign.  Alas, the pickings were slim.  I did, however, notice Capital Bikeshare stations around town, including one right outside my hotel, the Crystal Gateway Marriott. I snagged a three-day pass, and pedaled all over the place early in the mornings for a workout and a little in the evening to and from restaurants. Pretty neat system, and sure beats the alternatives for both cost and convenience.

My morning rides were on the Mount Vernon Trail, a nice path that was teeming with hardcore cyclists, many of whom were commuting to the Pentagon. My 40 lb. rent-a-bike was a bit out of place, but I had no trouble working up a sweat on that behemoth.  Yesterday, I headed south on the trail, and noticed...a sign!

You can actually take the trail to Washington National Airport. The sign was just a short distance from the place where I jumped on the trail for my bike ride, so yesterday afternoon, I left my hotel and just walked that route to the airport.  It was a brisk 15 minutes, quicker than waiting for the airport shuttle, or heading to the Metro.  I wonder how many major city airports are walkable. I know of at least one. Tonja and I walked to the San Diego airport a few years ago, which was a nice stroll along the scenic harbor.

Turns out I could have discovered the route pretty quickly. You can find about anything these days with Google or Bing.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Bike challenge

I've been back on my bikes pretty regularly in the past few years, and this year I am participating in the Lincoln Bike Challenge, part of the National Bike Challenge. Several other police officers and firefighters are doing likewise. There has been a thread on the Lincoln Bike Challenge site about cops-on-bikes-and-trails, and since I have a bit of an online presence, I figured I ought to weigh in. I imagine some of the readers are wondering if that is really me.

The thread concerned safety on the City's trail network, after a couple people saw uniformed police officers on the Mo-Pac (on a bicycle) and on the Antelope Valley (on a motorcycle) trails. I like the fact that an officer may occasionally dip onto a trail. It's part of the beat, and sees a lot of activity. I also noted that off-duty police officers are trail users too. This case from the weekend is a good example of how that helps protect citizens. This is probably the same officer that the person who commented on the Lincoln Bike Challenge saw on the Mo-Pac when she was on duty in uniform, but the arrest was made on her commute home at the end of her shift on Saturday.

In thousands of miles on foot and bike over four decades, I've never personally encountered any significant trouble on our trails. I can't say the same thing about the streets. Still, Lincoln's trails--though relatively safe--get lots of use, and anywhere you have human beings you will always have that tiny percentage....

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Congrats to grads

Last night ten new firefighters were sworn in at a Lincoln Fire & Rescue badge-pinning ceremony. I've been to many of these graduations in the bast several decades, but this one had a nice twist.  Chief John Huff and Battalion Chief Leo Benes had each firefighter introduce his family, and then invited one of the family members to do the honors.  It was pretty special.  Some of our new firefighters had nearly a dozen people in the audience. I kept waiting for someone to lock up and momentarily forget a brother-in-law's first name, but it never happened!

Congratulations to our newest firefighters as they begin their careers:

Tim Antes
Tyler Barry
Matthew Fair
Adam Hoffman
Jason Love
Matt Richardson
Garrett Rubendall
Adam Schaecher
Jared Stutzman
Daniel Wenz

Monday, June 10, 2013

Bright future

Friday I was the guest speaker at a luncheon held at the Grand Lodge at the Preserve, a senior living complex in southeast Lincoln.  The residents at the Grand Lodge have made contributions that fund a scholarship program for high school students who have worked at the Grand Lodge.  I'm sure it was fun for the students being awarded scholarships to attend as honored guests, and to be served by their coworkers!

The biographical sketches of the students were impressive, and their parents were undoubtedly busting their buttons as these were read.  As we gathered for photos, I chatted with some of the students and was certainly impressed.  Anyone who mumbles about "kids these days" simply isn't interacting with enough young people to realize how wrong they really are.

My talk concerned the value of work. I reminisced about my own experience in high school and college, working as many hours as I could fit in. I was sometimes envious of students who didn't work at all, and who could simply go to class, study, and play. In reality, though, working gave me an edge: through work in high school and college, I learned important job skills, valued by own education more, graduated debt-free, found my life's calling, and my soul mate.

These students, too, have gained immensely by supplementing their classroom education with real world experience on the job.  As they graduate and move on to college, their future is bright.  And so is our country's. Congratulations to all.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Off the grid

Earlier this week, I spotted a small group of officers in the Criminal Investigations Team gathered around an iPad.  You know me, a knot of cops around an iPad was irresistible.  Turns out the iPad belonged to an 18 year old runaway, and the officers were brainstorming about how to use Find my iPhone to track the current location of her MacBook.  Our missing person had skipped town with her laptop, but left her phone and tablet behind, which were provided to the investigators by her parents.

It turns out that our missing person had changed her Apple ID while on the lam, thwarting the attempt to easily track her with her own iPad. Good thinking.  We tried Facetiming her (and her boyfriend) without success, too.  She was not, however, entirely off the grid.

My experience is that the parents of a runaway are almost always very, very worried.  They are often convinced--beyond all logic--that their incorrigible child with a history of splitting has now actually been kidnapped and is being held against her will. I understand the fear.  This is your baby, after all, and though incredibly rare, there really are those occasional cases that put a lump in your throat. It should, however, be comforting to know that your abducted child is still updating Facebook, and making $2 purchases at convenience stores halfway across the country. Kidnappers will generally force you to buy a little more snack food than that.

So far this year, Lincoln police officers have investigated 886 missing person reports. It's a huge job.  The chance encounter with the investigator seeking assistance from some colleagues just reminded my how much these investigations have changed within the very recent past, as technology has become ubiquitous that makes it almost impossible for a teenager (and most adults) to fall off the grid for very long.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

App for that

Wandering through police headquarters yesterday, I spotted an employee using a paper cutter--something you don't see much these days.  She was trimming up a block of text, the make a pocket-sized set of instructions for conducting the walk-and-turn test, which is part of field sobriety testing for drunk driving suspects. "How old school," I said.  Turns out she was doing this as a favor for an officer, because she happened to have access to a laminator.

When I was a street cop, I had all sorts of little cards, maps, and cheat sheets: Miranda warnings, phone numbers, dictation guides, you name it. I'd type something up, or cut it out of some other document, then stop by Latsch's on my day off to get it laminated for a few cents.  I carried these in the back of my notebook, which rested in the left rear pocket of my uniform trousers, or jam them into the trim below the headliner in my patrol car.  I even cut up a paper map of the City into several tiles and had them laminated.

But hey, that was the 70s and 80s.  Nowadays, I'd be carrying such stuff around as an app on my smartphone. I figured for sure that there had to be an app with the NHTSA field sobriety instructions, so I searched and found several, including just what I was looking for. You wouldn't really need to part with 99 cents though, because you could tap in the instructions as a memo, and just use that. The nice thing about having such things as an app on a smartphone, is that you wouldn't need your flashlight to read the card.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Sudden impact

Last Wednesday evening, a bit before 8:00 PM, a finial on the roof of a 10-story downtown building fell without warning to the sidewalk. I'm guessing that the concrete finial is about two feet tall, and around 40 pounds.  The impact left a bit of a crater in the pavement below. Good thing there wan't a pedestrian in the drop zone.  I think that would have left a mark.