The uses of video surveillance as a government security tool and for law enforcement have proven their worth by helping to reduce crime and create safer communities. Remote surveillance is being used to view city parks, watch corners where drug deals take place and in general as an extension of police officers' eyes. Video images also are commonly used to protect courthouses, government offices and other facilities.

But the potential of video surveillance is even greater. Technology is fundamentally transforming how video images are transmitted, shared and managed. Virtually any video image is potentially available on any screen on a desktop computer or laptop in a remote office or even a smart phone. Cameras can be located anywhere they can connect to the network, even wirelessly. Like all technology, video surveillance is developing quickly, and the following are the top five trends that are expanding its value to local governments.

1. IP video

Connecting analog video cameras using coaxial cabling was the predominant technology for decades, but it is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. The latest video systems are IP-based, use Ethernet connectivity and are digital from end to end. In effect, today's cameras are edge devices on a computer network and take advantage of all the standards and functionality of the advanced networking technologies that drive the IT industry.

IP-based systems have numerous advantages. Costs can be lower because there is no need to run a cable from every camera to a recorder. The recorders consist of computer servers and data storage systems combined with video management software to drive the system. Because the entire system is digital, no video quality is lost in transitions between digital and analog, and image quality is not limited to a standard number of analog TV lines.

Surveillance video is available anywhere the network is accessible. Video can be viewed using client software that maximizes the ability to view in real-time, to search archives by time or motion and to share those images with anyone on the network. Because handling and accessing video is easier, it takes fewer operators to view many cameras. Most important, video is no longer a closed system but one that can be integral to an organization's operation.

2. High-def cameras

The new megapixel cameras have more resolution, deliver more detailed images, and cover larger areas per camera (while maintaining critical details). A standard resolution camera provides 307,200 pixels of information, while a 10 megapixel camera provides 10,039,296 pixels of information, or more than 30 times as much resolution. In the old days, a camera pointed at a parking lot could capture a decent image overall, but if you tried to zoom in on a license plate on one of the cars, you could not read the number. With megapixel cameras, the numbers are perfectly legible.

That means that instead of dozens of cameras to watch a large area like a parking lot, only a few are needed. Mechanical pan-tilt-zoom devices are no longer needed to move cameras around to see what is happening. Instead, one big picture captures everything with enough detail to let you zoom in forensically when or if you ever need to see greater detail.

3. Wireless

Any video camera can be connected via WiFi to a network. Cameras also can be connected to wireless networks like those built by the large service providers. A video system also may use a wireless network in a mesh configuration, where radio-empowered network nodes are located throughout a large area. If something blocks the transmission between one node and another, the network reroutes the signal using other nodes, thus relaying video instantly without the need for physical connections. The various types of wireless networks enable systems to be installed without having to bury cable or string it across poles, either of which could be costly.

4. Video analytics

Video analytics is a combination of computer analysis and video in which the software can interpret what is in the picture and alert an operator if certain situations occur. The simplest scenario might involve focusing a camera on an area with no expected activity, such as an empty hallway after hours. If there is movement in the hallway, the video motion detector triggers an alarm to alert an operator. Such functionality virtually eliminates the need for an operator to watch a video screen for hours waiting for something to happen.

More sophisticated video analytics include approaches such as virtual trip wires, where a virtual boundary can be specified in the software — a perimeter not to be crossed — and the video analytics triggers an alarm if anyone crosses that line. Another example is "object left behind," where the alarm is sent if an individual exits the frame and leaves an object, such as a suitcase, behind. Alternatively, analytics could be configured to provide an alarm if an object is moved, such as a valuable item on display in a public place.

License plate recognition software is mature and dependable and an effective way to provide an alert (with accompanying video) if unauthorized vehicles enter or leave premises without authorization. Applications also exist to help police officers screen for suspects using facial recognition.

5. Convergence

The more cameras there are, the bigger the challenge of managing video. Fortunately, there are software programs today that can easily manage multiple cameras. Also, physical security information management systems can tie various information strands together, with video at the center. More importantly, systems can provide information to users who can choose the information and priorities they need. Better information enables better decision making and faster reactions to emergency situations.

Beyond security

In addition to their usefulness as security tools, video systems can be effective management tools. They can help with process control, personnel management, inventory tracking and customer service. A centralized system that unifies video from a dozen or more locations also has value. And, video that can be accessed from any network-connected computer, whether for a real-time view or an archived video, and that can be searched by time and content, gives government workers many advantages.

The value proposition for video as a government security and surveillance tool may be well understood, but the economic climate makes it imperative that the bottom-line benefit also be communicated effectively. Uncovering additional benefits and uses of video will only make the case stronger. Video can be part of a city or county's information stream and should be leveraged for maximum value.

Gadi Piran is president of Pearl River, N.Y.-based OnSSI.

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