Monday, October 13, 2008
More Eyes on the Streets Now - Taking GIS to the Next Level in Santa Rosa
Street-by-street, gathering digital data
By NATHAN HALVERSON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Monday, October 13, 2008 at 4:25 a.m.
Santa Rosa is photographing every yard, building and lamppost along all city roads, from A Street to Zurlow Court.
JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat
The city of Santa Rosa is creating its own database, using an SUV with a 360-degree-view camera to photograph everything on every street of the city.It is creating a vast database that it plans to use for everything from enforcing planning codes to cataloging the city's street trees.
It has hired a contractor to drive down streets and take millions of highly detailed photos to create a digital, panoramic world -- similar to Google's controversial Street View images but with higher resolution.
The street-level photos, which can be viewed by city employees on an internal computer network, are the latest addition to the city's growing arsenal of digital tools used to manage daily operations.
While it sounds like Big Brother incarnate, the city's growing use of technology is designed to save employee time, cut paper waste and curb emissions by reducing driving.
City officials believe efficiencies gained through technology will help maintain services in a time of severe budget cuts.
Funded with a $197,000 matching grant from the state, the photos are part of the city's larger effort to digitally catalog everything it manages and owns.
"We want one place to get all the information about the city," said Eric McHenry, the city's chief technology officer. "We are looking to make the city more efficient. And this lets city workers drive a lot less, and use less gas."
At the heart of the move to digitize the city is a program known as graphic information systems, or GIS.
The city's GIS coordinator, Michael Hargreaves, pulls together vast amounts of information, such as the location of trees, manhole covers and light poles, and affixes that data to a point on a digital map.
Using the city's GIS database and software, Hargreaves can quickly find the light pole nearest to Mendocino Avenue and Benton Street, identify its model type and see when it was last serviced -- all without leaving his cubicle.
Funding for the photo project was provided through a state grant to help cities measure how much greenhouse gases are being removed by local trees.
With the new street-level technology, Hargreaves can quickly pull up a photo of a tree along a city street and let the software determine its height and diameter. These measurements allow the city to calculate how much greenhouse gases are absorbed by the canopies of trees along Santa Rosa streets.
The software used to create the panoramic effect and determine the height of objects such as houses, bridges and trees is a marvel of modern computing.
To calculate the height and width of objects, it relies on the same basic principles used by the human brain. It compares a photo taken from the left with another taken from the right -- just like human eyes.
Put another way, the software makes quick work of a complex geometry equation and triangulates distances, such as the height of a tree or length of a building.
The photos and accompanying software are provided by a small Bay Area firm.
"This is all part of an effort to make the city more efficient, and in the long run reduce costs," McHenry said.
Already in use
About a dozen cities in the Bay Area have incorporated the panoramic technology.
"It is a very, very handy tool," said Morad Fakhrai, deputy director of public works for Hayward, which began using it in 2005.
Fakhrai used the technology Tuesday to look at a stretch of road after a resident complained the bike-lane sign was confusing. Within minutes he had loaded images taken from the street, zoomed in on the sign and surveyed the bike lane. Fakhrai agreed with the resident. The sign was confusing, and he was able to assess how to solve the problem before driving out to the site.
"City workers can basically drive up and down the street on their computers," he said. "It doesn't eliminate the need to go out there. But it does reduce the number of times people need to go out there."
Hayward police officers have laptops installed in their vehicles with software to view the street-level photos. They use the program to help make decisions in the field, such as before storming a house or setting up a perimeter, Officer Lori Ferreyra said.
"We can get a good idea of how to set things up before moving in," Ferreyra said. "Officers love it. It works wonderfully."
Hayward photographs its streets every other year. It creates a time-lapse effect that lets staff view the changing cityscape, including identifying building projects that did not obtain required permits.
Santa Rosa already uses aerial photography intertwined with its GIS software to catch and enforce projects that were not properly permitted, McHenry said.
"That has been very useful for us," he added.
How it works
Santa Rosa officials hired the same company Hayward uses.
Kujin Lee, founder of Cupertino-based @City, said the photo technology is always improving, and Santa Rosa is getting the latest iteration.
A turret atop Lee's SUV contains 18 lenses that snap simultaneous photos. The images are later stitched together by software to create the 360-degree panorama. He recently upgraded six of the cameras to high resolution, which allows city workers to peer deeper into yards, or better analyze cracks in the asphalt.
Lee had photographed about 75 percent of Santa Rosa's streets as of mid-October. City officials expected to get the final results in four to six weeks -- all 650 miles' worth of it.
Every photo Lee takes is stamped with its exact location using a high-end global positioning system. Photos are taken about every 30 feet.
Big GIS plans
The new panoramic photos are part of an ambitious plan unveiled last month by Santa Rosa for its GIS program.
It plans to record the latitude and longitude coordinates of every non-moving asset it manages -- from the location of a manhole cover in Rincon Valley to a park bench in Howarth Park.
"We made the decision that any asset the city has will be geocoded and entered into the GIS system," McHenry said.
Also, every time maintenance is conducted on a piece of city property, or a claim for repair is submitted, a digital record is sent to the GIS database and becomes part of the object's history.
Thus far, the city has entered hundreds of thousands of data points, such as the location of stop lights, fire hydrants, property lines and sewer systems. It has even begun creating 3-D renderings of downtown in its GIS database.
"We have more eyes on the streets now," McHenry said. "We're taking GIS to the next level."
You can reach Staff Writer Nathan Halverson at 521-5494 or firstname.lastname@example.org.