When I am at work, I worry incessantly about my daughter left alone at home with a nanny. I can perhaps install a CCTV at home to watch over her but that may not be a practical solution as I cannot be glued to the monitor while I am at work. But it would be great if I could receive an alert each time she moved close to an electric switch or the cooking range or wandered onto the balcony. I could then watch her and call home to alert the nanny. This is just one instance when safety is of such concern. What about safety of the general public?
Safety and security have never been discussed in India as they are now. Threats are from everywhere, and at all places. Security checking at offices and shopping mall entrances has become a ritual. Today when I see the sheer abundance of CCTV systems around, I remember the popular television series ‘Person of Interest’ where a government agency had developed a sophisticated System ‘The Machine’. It looks at surveillance cameras, all electronic communications, and audio video channels. From this data, ‘the Machine’ predicts violent acts. Though it is fiction, it strikes a note somewhere. The idea of preventing crimes rather than solving them is an appealing twist in today’s times and to some (including me); it’s comforting to imagine vigilant police monitoring every camera.
CCTV systems have an objective of reducing crimes. But same key questions remain unanswered – like do CCTVs really prevent crimes from happening? Or do they merely help catching a criminal once the crime has happened? How many of them really work and how strong a mechanism they are in ensuring public safety.
Manual inspection of video cameras – one frame (per second ) of CCTV can generate up to dozens of meaningful events of interest (meaningful events like a person running, person trying to hide his/her face, person taking an abnormal path, person loitering in an area, person leaving a bag in busy road, etc). This means that a security person watching a CCTV has a potential of tens of thousands of events to observe in an hour. This is huge volume for any human eye and mind. A typical human mind can pay attention for only few hours and few thousand events which make it practically impossible to catch all the events that CCTV footage is capturing by manual inspection of CCTV cameras.
However, this does not imply that manual inspection of CCTV is not valuable. CCTV and manual inspection of CCTV plays a huge role in providing safety to an extent human eye and human mind can pay attention. However, human factor (mind and eye) also comes with a limitation in manual inspection and hence the effectiveness of CCTV cameras at times is adversely impacted.
CCTV in post incident investigation
Let us for a moment look at post incident investigation and role of CCTV’s. If an incident happens on a busy road in a city, then video footage from CCTV installed on that road needs to be taken. Video footages from CCTV on roads and/or metro stations approaching the incidence road also need to be viewed. This can mean looking at video feeds from dozens of cameras. Not only videos of the day when the incident happened needs to be seen but also videos of few previous days needs to be monitored ( to correlate any patterns, like whether any person came to that place and inspected before the incident happened). So to get clues, video feeds need to be seen from dozens of cameras and several days of feeds from each camera; which means analyzing thousands of hours of video feeds. This can be cumbersome and time consuming and given the criticality of time and pace at which post incident investigation needs to happen, is it the most effective and efficient way ?
We can progress in making CCTV’s more effective by using a three-way approach:
1. Install CCTV Cameras for manual inspection – this is already prevalent and in use by several government and private entities.
2) Build intelligence around the CCTV systems: This means that the CCTV systems automatically analyze the frames of the footages and send alerts if something fishy is happening. A person aimlessly loitering around, casually leaving a bag or dropping something in the dustbin of a crowded area and hurrying out of there is definitely a reason for concern and the system should be able to identify and send organized alerts to responsible law enforcement agencies. But in any bustling city like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore etc, with thousands of malls and public places and lots of security cameras, there can be innumerable alerts causing chaos and requiring huge amounts of manpower to screen the dud ones from the ones that need to be acted upon. Possibly all or none of them can be a potential threat. Hence, lots of thought need to be put around building intelligence in the CCTV systems to actually separate possible threats from innocent situations. Technology has matured and systems which build such intelligence and differentiate innocent behavior from fishy behavior exists – and should be probably used along with CCTV – to truly transform from reactive measures to preventive measures.
3) Build mechanism to respond to these alerts: Getting a proactive alert is as important as having a mechanism to respond to them. Emergency management comprises key aspects like incident notification via alerts, looking at where the key resources are, like police, ambulance, fire which can reach the incident location fastest, notifying police/ambulance/vans to reach the location, coordinating with various departments like traffic to ensure police/ambulance/fire can reach without getting stuck in traffic, locating nearest hospitals and ensuring anyone injured reaches the hospital with minimal loss of time. Hence, an intelligent operation center should go hand in hand with CCTV’s – as this can ensure key aspects of emergency management like incident notification, invoking right Standard Operating procedures, locating nearest resource, notifying resources to reach the incident spot, collaborating with agencies like traffic to ensure that resources reach the incident spot as soon as possible.
The above three-way approach and especially intelligent video analytics along with intelligent operation center – is critical to move from reactive approach to a pro active one. Having said all this I would say that ‘The Machine’ might not be far cry after all – continuous improvements in technology and research which add intelligence to the cameras will definitely take us in creating that perfect security system which is every citizen’s ultimate dream!
- By Priyansh Dixit, he leads Smarter Cities initiative at IBM’s India Software Lab.