IBM software aids in vast surveillance of Chicago streets

Sweeping video program aimed ultimately at "suspicious behavior"

The City of Chicago is developing a futuristic video surveillance system designed to scan city streets looking for everything from bombs to traffic jams.

For the past few years Chicago has been rolling out thousands of video surveillance cameras linked by fiber-optic cables. This Operation Virtual Shield system is intended to give the city's emergency response coordination agency the ability to remotely keep track of emergencies in real time.

Now, with the help of IBM Corp., Chicago's Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) is looking to expand the system's capabilities so that IBM's software can analyze the thousands of hours of video being recorded by Operation Virtual Shield.

"That's really going to just throw our camera network into hyperdrive," said Kevin Smith, a spokesman with the OEMC. "Ultimately I think what this software might be able to do is simply recognize suspicious behavior and alert our operations people and, at times, our crime detections specialists as to what it sees."

The software could recognize a package that had been left in a public park or a car parked where no car is supposed to be, Smith said.

IBM has been pushing a similar technology called Smart Surveillance System within the retail industry as a tool to fight shoplifting. The Smart Surveillance System was spun out of IBM's T.J. Watson Research Center earlier this year.

Now IBM is talking to a number of cities about rolling out similar projects, according to Sam Docknevich, a Digital Video Surveillance National Practice Leader with IBM. However none is as advanced as the Operation Virtual Shield effort. "Chicago is definitely the leading example of the value of integrating video from multiple organizations and using it to enhance public safety," he said.

OEMC's Smith would not say how much the city is spending on the project or when it expects IBM's video analytics capabilities to go live.

The trick will be to make the analytics software work in a useful way. "The challenge is going to be teaching computers to recognize the suspicious behavior," said Smith. "Once this is done this will be a very impressive city in terms of public safety."

Privacy advocates were unavailable for comment at press time.

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