Figure 1 >> High-resolution oblique image of the Washington Monument from the City of Baltimore’s Pictometry Imagery Warehouse, as would be downloaded and used by the city’s first responders

Imagery and GIS

A New Approach to Municipal Security

Matthew Erik Fischer
JD Candidate Georgetown University Law Center
MA Candidate in International Affairs
The George Washington University
www.gwu. edu/~spi/

Chad J. Shuey PhD
Candidate in Geography
University of Maryland

By the morning of Sept. 14, 2001, large dump trucks filled with sand surrounded Baltimore’s City Hall. Members of the Police Department’s elite Quick Response Team somberly stood watch to the flanks of the dais as Mayor Martin O’Malley led the city in prayer and mourning for our neighbors to the north and south.

Something was different. The world had not changed, but our perceptions and priorities had.

As mourning gave way to response, the need for increased security planning would collide with the nascent geospatial data capabilities of the City of Baltimore. Many policy changes and actions would occur in the coming months and years in the cause of homeland security, but discussion of most must be left for another time and place. Here, we shall focus on remote sensing and imagery in the City of Baltimore and their roles as enablers in a new approach to municipal security.

By the end of the 1990s the city had developed a modest Geographic Information System (GIS) capability. Originating within the Bureau of Water and Wastewater, GIS had begun its life as a tool for managing underground utility data. Yet as the 1990s gave way to the new millennium, the dataset expanded and included other planimetric features such as street centerlines, land parcels, and such cultural features as schools, museums, and churches. This dataset, together with the aerial imagery used to create it, would serve as the basis for the new methods of municipal and homeland security planning.

At a basic level, the city’s aerial orthophotography serves as an enabler at the tactical and strategic levels of operations, yet that same imagery enables the creation and maintenance of the GIS data used for other forms of analysis and planning. The existence of geospatial assets has enabled a new approach to homeland security for the City of Baltimore.

Imagery, even without the direct use of GIS data, has proven quite valuable to the city in security matters, especially during events and operations. While direct overhead imagery can be helpful, Baltimore’s fire and police departments, as well as other emergency responders have found that oblique imagery proves more valuable. Oblique imagery allows users to have a rotating 45-degree view of a city location, enabling emergency personnel to determine the size, configuration, and access during fires or other serious events, and to make suitable plans without sending individuals into harm’s way. See Figures 1 and 2.

In the past it was necessary to send firefighters or police officers into potentially hazardous situations to analyze the safety of an area. Now it can be done from a command vehicle equipped with a laptop and the city’s Pictometry software and data.

Also valuable during operations are the various closed-circuit TV cameras installed throughout the city. Operating under the CitiWatch program, these cameras are used mainly for crime fighting purposes. However, some are dedicated to the monitoring of potential sites of terrorist activities. In conjunction with other cameras operated by the Department of Transportation for traffic monitoring, red light enforcement, and snow clearing operations, these cameras provide a kind of real-time intelligence lacking in other products. No single type of remote sensing data can serve all purposes, but these various sources acting in concert and across agencies result in reduced risk to both emergency responders and the citizens of Baltimore.

Geospatial data provides the opportunity not only for increased situational awareness during operations but also for improved planning beforehand. The same sources described above can be used for identifying evacuation chokepoints, security vulnerabilities, and potential deployment plans before an event occurs, and such uses do occur by the Mayor’s Office, Office of Emergency Management, and other agencies of the city. However, at this more “strategic” level of planning, non-imagery geospatial data and its concomitant analyses come into their own.

Various forms of geospatial data have been created from overhead imagery data for the city. These data can then be used for such things as plume analyses, force deployment patterns, and the integration of geospatial information with non-geospatial information through the use of geodatabases. Thus, GIS acts as a force multiplier for the city’s imagery data. Not only is it possible for imagery to be used during planning and operations, the GIS data derived from such imagery allow for an even greater array of analysis, planning, and operational efficiency.

Most geospatial data, like other forms of information, can and should serve multiple uses, but this has never been as apparent as it has been in the post-9/11 era. There will always be security-specific data such as critical infrastructure that need to be a part of any emergency response framework. However, high resolution imagery, as well as common GIS layers such as water supply networks, railroads, and landuse data (which all have obvious municipal planning applications), have a potentially greater value in the context of homeland security. As part of pre-event planning, and also during actual events, data such as these often serve an even more important function than some of the security-specific data. This dual use nature can also inform the requirements for future data acquisition. In the past, imagery datasets or GIS landbase update requirements would be defined by engineering and planning needs, not by security considerations.

A series of recent developments in the geospatial data realm has led to a greatly increased accessibility of imagery data and other resources. The USGS’s National Map project, Google Maps, and Google Earth have put a wealth of imagery and data at the fingertips of anyone, including budget-strapped municipalities. Additionally, the increasing availability and robustness of open source software further increases a jurisdiction’s accessibility to IT and imagery security solutions. Combinations of cheap hardware, free software and free data mean that cost-prohibitive imagery solutions may be increasingly rare. Although the budget in Baltimore may feel tight, this is especially true for more rural jurisdictions whose imagery and GIS budgets can be dwarfed by those of major market cities.

The City of Baltimore made a great stride in accessibility of imagery data with the introduction of Pictometry in the Spring of 2004. A fairly simple desktop client, and the fact that basic users can easily relate to and interpret features in oblique imagery, mean non-GIS and even non-technical people are able to access and use these data with average PCs. In the past, imagery and maps generally would be available only during major incidents when GIS and other personnel reported to the city’s Emergency Operations Center. Now, there is no need for highly trained GIS and Imagery experts with highend workstations to place important data into the hands of decision makers in a timely fashion. A firefighter at the scene using a laptop can accomplish the same tasks. Thus, geospatial data can be leveraged during smaller, less serious events, as opposed to being limited to largescale catastrophes.

All of these technologies will continue to mature, become more complex, and ultimately converge. Therefore, it is increasingly important that some basic level of accessibility to common users be maintained if we are to avoid the risks outlined in Alvin Toffler’s classic treatise, Future Shock. Although much of Toffler’s work was alarmist and even outrageous, it is difficult to deny that increasing specialization in many parts of the IT realm can lead to certain planning and logistical difficulties for security events.

By keeping imagery data in the hands of both decision makers and first responders, we can greatly increase the value of these data while improving our responses during security events and praying that a need for such responses may never come.

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