Safe cities view

by Mark Rowe

Most people who live in cities, particularly large ones, have become accustomed to a relatively high level of general and public surveillance, whether it is the police patrolling the streets, cameras in shopping malls or intelligent security solutions deployed in public transportation systems. Many feel that as long as these systems benefit them as citizens and keep them safe, general surveillance can be accepted and people feel safer as a result. It has become part of the fabric of 21st century life for many, writes Per Björkdahl, pictured, ONVIF Steering Committee Chair.

Many of us value individual safety, especially in cities. Physical security systems are capable of delivering exactly that to citizens, though the management and operation of these systems can be challenging at times. Cities today often use video management systems or other platforms to view camera footage, protect citizens and property, analyse incidents, evaluate security and to help them determine appropriate responses to events such as natural disasters, disruptions to transportation and other municipal services, and other threats to public safety. They may also use intrusion, access control, building automation and fire detection systems in their management of a city’s security, in conjunction with video surveillance. Cities implementing this connected security approach have been dubbed ‘safe cities.’ Most safe cities share a common infrastructure and operate using sensors and/or cameras over a shared municipal network. Using these sensors and the data from many different devices synthesised through one interface, government officials and law enforcement are afforded a total, holistic view of a city’s security.

Integrating the many parts of a Safe City

The integration of all of these systems enables a municipality to manage its security comprehensively and from a single point of view from the command centre. If, for an example, there is a leak in a water main, the city’s command center can quickly review video footage from a camera positioned at the leak’s physical location, check access control data to see why and how the gate to the water main is open and determine who was the last employee to enter the restricted area. At the same time, the command centre can use cameras on the street to monitor street flooding and assess damage to surrounding areas. There are operational challenges that accompany the many systems that are included in a safe city deployment. Inter-operability continues to present one of the greatest challenges, particularly with video management systems, video recording devices and cameras. The most common scenario is that municipalities have several different management systems for city operations that were created by different manufacturers, each with proprietary interfaces for integration. To connect its different systems together, cities often end up employing a “build once and maintain forever” approach, in which the continuing cost for integration of the city’s systems becomes prohibitively expensive. In a world where technology and features change quickly, the ‘build once and maintain forever’ scenario is not practical or attractive, as it severely limits an end user’s ability to try new technology and/or different vendor’s products and requires a substantial financial commitment to those specific manufacturers and proprietary interfaces. Another approach that some end users and integrators take is to deploy products from a single manufacturer in order to facilitate system-wide integration. However, this approach can also have an undesirable result: it stifles an end user’s ability to add new products from other vendors and locks an end user into a long-term commitment with the manufacturer.


This is where the need for robust and well-defined standards comes into play, particularly for video surveillance, which is most commonly at the heart of safe city deployments. Standards, such as those from ONVIF, an industry alliance that offers standardised interface specifications for video security systems and physical access control systems, provides the common link between disparate components of these systems. Designed specifically to overcome the challenges in multi-vendor environments, ONVIF’s common interface facilitates communication between technologies from different manufacturers and fosters an interoperable system environment where system components can be used interchangeably, as long as the devices conform to the ONVIF specification. Since 2008, when ONVIF was founded, the organisation has published a number of specifications and profiles for effective integration of devices and clients in the physical security industry. For Video Security systems, ONVIF has released Profile S for video streaming and Profile G for storage and playback. Profile Q for easy deployment was released in July.

In a safe city scenario, much of the recorded video from video security systems is used to conduct post-event forensic investigations, where operators analyse a specific incident or series of incidents and determine suitable actions, which often requires coordination with local, county, state and sometimes federal law enforcement officials. Video clips are exported to provide authorities identification of suspects or for evidentiary purposes during prosecution. The challenge in a multi-vendor environment is that authorities often receive exported video material in a multitude of formats with a multitude of players for playback. Here, a standardised approach for both file format and associated players, which ONVIF’s specification provides, increases the efficiency of the process and also adds the potential of including meta data in exported materials and reports, which determines the exact time and location of the recorded incident. ONVIF has also released an export file format specification that outlines a defined format for effective export of recorded material and forensics. These specifications together make it possible not only to integrate devices in multi-vendor video security system deployments in safe city environments but offer an effective common export file format that can streamline a post-event investigation where authorities are trying to react as fast as possible to apprehend suspects or to diffuse an ongoing situation.

Other standards organisations outside the physical security industry have identified the need for standards in effective Safe City deployments, such as the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). IEC has initiated a Systems Evaluation Group – Smart Cities, SEG 1, a group that will evaluate relevant works and propose a standardisation roadmap for smart cities, a term often used synonymously with safe cities. The group will also provide a mapping of closely related activities in cooperation with the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) and others.

ONVIF has been working with the IEC on standards for the physical security industry for several years. In 2013, the IEC included an ONVIF specification in its IEC 62676 standard for Video Surveillance Systems, the first international standard for video surveillance systems to be established. The ONVIF specification for video, which defines video transmission protocols for communication between network video clients and video transmitter devices, is based on Web Services and is referenced in IEC 62676 Part 2-3.
This year, IEC will include an additional ONVIF specification in an IEC standard, this time with ONVIF’s specification for Electronic Access Control, in the IEC 60839-11 System and components requirements standard for Alarm and Electronic Security Systems, based on Web Services. The specification includes minimum functionality, performance and testing methods for electronic access control systems and components used for physical access. The inclusion of ONVIF’s specification in the two standards mentioned above indicates a steady continuity in the use of standards in the industry.

ONVIF Members’ Safe City Solutions

Several ONVIF members are using ONVIF’s specifications in the large-scale deployment of video surveillance systems. Two of these, Meyertech and Huawei, have used ONVIF prominently in safe city deployments in large cities. In 2014, ONVIF member company Meyertech helped the city of York to deploy a safe city solution for the city’s public spaces and transportation system. Using a Meyertech video management software and information management software, the city was able to integrate IP cameras with the many legacy systems for its York Travel and Control Centre command center. The city’s control room monitors more than 150 cameras from different manufacturers in the city and city representatives say the new system has had an immediate impact on crime rates. The integration of legacy and new IP cameras with the new VMS, which interfaced with the information management software, was made possible through ONVIF’s video specification.

Another ONVIF member, Huawei, is considered a leader in smart city solutions. Huawei has deployed smart city solutions in Nairobi, Kenya, and in China in the cities of Nanjing and Shanghai. Huawei’s video management system was used in the Shanghai project as part of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security’s safe cities construction initiative. One of the key challenges of the project was to integrate old and new technology. Huawei’s VMS used ONVIF to integrate the cameras from manufacturers Dahua, Haikang, AXIS, SONY and other brands.

A Multi-discipline Physical Security Standard?

At present, physical security’s role in safe cities is primarily through video surveillance, a key part of safe city deployments. Physical security is also playing a substantive role in the Internet of Things’ evolution. ONVIF’s vision is that all physical security systems will eventually have the same interfaces for interoperability, and is dedicated to facilitating the work of its members in developing a multi-discipline standard. Such an all-encompassing interface would provide a comprehensive approach to interoperability that would satisfy the core elements of video surveillance, access control and other essential operations of a safe city command centre. Because safe city deployments and the Internet of Things concept operate on the same principles of connecting disparate systems and devices together, a multi-discipline physical security standard would no doubt also play a role in the further development of the Internet of Things. Many of those in the technology industry at large see standards as an important component in both safe cities and the IoT. The IEEE (the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) is already working on IoT standards for technology-based industries and some even predict that we may see global IoT standards in place by the end of this year. If an IoT standard is developed, this will likely have an influence on safe city deployments. As standards and industries collaborate even further than they already have and establish minimum interoperability standards together, the need for a multi-discipline physical security standard may present itself. A day will come when it makes the most sense to do so, rather than creating proprietary multi-discipline systems. We’re not at that point yet, as an industry, but a multi-discipline physical security standard is certainly somewhere on the proverbial horizon.

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