ATLANTA -- Last year New Orleans ranked as having the highest per capita murder rate in the U.S., with 275 homicides. But one of the city's technologists said it's working to keep citizens safe with the help of wireless networking technology.
In January, New Orleans launched a pilot project setting up an 802.11b wireless mesh network and mounting connected IP-based surveillance cameras in high crime neighborhoods. The city uses images from the cameras to help convict offenders caught in the act.
In the space of six months, the neighborhood's murder rate was down 57% and auto thefts were down 30%, according to Chris Drake, project director of the mayor's office of technology in New Orleans.
"The cameras have helped because it is often hard to get witnesses to testify," Drake said. "This is a witness that can't be intimidated."
New Orleans is one of several dozen municipalities across the U.S. that has implemented wireless broadband networks. Drake said the city is using an 802.11b wireless mesh network from Tropos Networks Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., to deploy Wi-Fi across high crime neighborhoods.
By using a mesh architecture that passes data along from access point to access point, Drake said, New Orleans has been able to control deployment costs and maintain greater flexibility in choosing access points locations.
Since mesh networks move data from one access point to the next, fewer hard-wired connections are required. Such a design reduces costs, Drake said, because access points require fewer cables.
But because moving data from access point to access point utilizes a good deal of bandwidth on the wireless network, the city found that it needed to hard-wire a connection after every two access points. Otherwise, Drake said, the available bandwidth would sink below 1 Mbps.
The police department is also using the Wi-Fi connection to transmit police reports and ticket information so that when a traffic ticket is issued, the data is sent directly into the city's computer system, bypassing a manual process that is prone to errors.
But Drake said the most effective element of the program has been the IP surveillance cameras. They pan over 350 degrees and zoom in and out. They are shielded behind bullet proof casings and are remotely controlled from headquarters.
The cameras can shoot between five and 10 frames per second, and are set up to provide a clear enough picture of a criminal's face that a perpetrator can be positively identified in court. The images are captured to a hard drive and archived for 72 hours.
Rather than use the more popular MPEG digital video format, the city instead uses the Motion JPEG format. Drake said courts have thrown out MPEG images because they combine frames for a composite image. Motion JPEG, however, does not merge frames and, as a result, has held up more successfully in court.
Attendee Richard Roller, a senior systems engineer with the city of Knoxville, Tenn., said the use of a mesh network and security cameras were important innovations.
Knoxville installed a Wi-Fi network three years ago. Police officers there use the network to file reports, download neighborhood crime maps and access criminal databases. Though it has been helpful, Roller said this city has not seen the dramatic changes that New Orleans has.
But it only has access points at 28 of its firehouses, so police officers must drive to a firehouse to send or receive data. In addition, the city has not deployed security cameras, something that Roller said could benefit the department.
New Orleans is also installing Wi-Fi networks in disadvantaged communities to Internet-enabled PCs in its community centers. It has also provided free Wi-Fi access in certain economic development zones.
That is an idea that appealed to attendee Darryl Mason, a network administrator at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. The university has a Wi-Fi network, but he is looking into working with the city of Atlanta to deploy Wi-Fi beyond the campus into the community.
"Anytime the school has an opportunity to work with the city, it's good for everyone," said Mason.
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