Rejecting PSIM, Big City to DIY

By: Carlton Purvis, Published on Dec 04, 2013

Lots of ends users get duped by fancy PSIM presentations. But one big city is rejecting the hype, lead by a former systems integrator now in charge of a major city project. In this note, we break down why they chose to build it themselves, what they found lacking in commercial options, including Vidsys and Microsoft, and how they plan to do it.

PSIM: Don’t Waste Your Time

For Michael Vidro [link no longer available], the head of integration for the Philadelphia Police Department and overseeing the integration aspects for the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center (DIVC), the biggest challenge was trying to figure out how to integrate the information from so many different feeds into one place, and PSIMs
were not it, he said.

They realized this when they listed all of the things they wanted to be able to integrate, which included utility and GIS data, license plate recognition, information sharing between law enforcement agencies, social media streams, the city’s camera network and possibly private cameras in the future. Vidro says they vetted out many existing PSIMS because there was no one platform they found that would let them integrate all of the data streams in the manner they wanted.

“Basically the best option was to build it ourselves,” he said at Secured Cities. “My recommendation is not to go with a boxed-in PSIM. There are a lot of people here who probably don’t want to hear that, but that is my recommendation.”

Vidro says the police department and the Office of Innovation and Technology are working now on a custom 'PSIM' for the intelligence center based on the city's exiting GIS system.

Making the Most of GIS

Philadelphia has one of the the nation's most robust GIS systems. Earlier this year the city's GIS team won an international award for innovation for a new crime map it launched in 2012. This system is exactly what Vidro plans to leverage to build the DVIC's "domain awareness" capability. Philadelphia uses ArcGIS and its GIS team consists of about 15 people, four of which are developers.

"They already do 90 percent of the stuff we wanted to do with a PSIM. They already have several data sources, more than we do," he said. "The hardest part of a PSIM is the geospatial aspect. We've got the geospatial. We've got the mapping. We've got all the data."

This includes utility poles, fire hydrants, 911 and EMS and he says there should be no problem incorporating LPR and video surveillance streams into that. ArcGIS also allows users to develop widgets and build them into the platform.

"Sure enough the tools are there to build widgets that you can pop in to see video," he said. Like any data stream it can be incorporated into it GIS. The city would just need to build the script to pull the information and make it populate on a map.

From a cost standpoint, it saves the city thousands. Instead of spending money on integrators and vendors, they plan to hire developers to help write the widgets for the additional data they want coming in to the DVIC.

These are all features being developed for the ArcGIS platform. The inspiration for some of the features came from the scramble to get data and video feeds for past special events to temporary command posts.

He recalled how for the Fourth of July in two days the city built widgets that would let them watch all of the cameras on the parade route and linked in all fire hydrants data and locations that people could potentially put explosives and gave access to law enforcement in the field. He also said there was an "instant messaging" type widget that would allow people viewing from different locations communication with each other.

"One of the things I come across a lot is when people look at this technology, they look at it like it's black magic. It's really not that hard. It's just a matter of figuring out the integration," he said.

Integrating Other Cameras

The city is still also still trying to decide how or if it wants to integrate private cameras into the system. There are three pilots in very early stages of integrating outside cameras with the city system. The city can access and view these cameras at all times, but relies on the owners to store video.

Law Enforcement Agencies

One pilot is to find out the best way to incorporate feeds from the seven other cooperating agencies into the GIS-based "PISIM." The team is currently writing an API using Genetec's SDK that would help them bring video into the GIS. The DVIC will be using video and data streams coming in from the FBI, Homeland Security, the Coast Guard, Amtrak and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). The DVIC was funded to do a a proof of concept pilot of this GIS-based system which will be starting within the next six months.

Society Hill

The Society Hill Civic Associaton is building a mesh network that will support 20 cameras that will go back to their own NRV and use a local Internet connection to send video direction to Philadelphia's watch center over the open Internet. This is a Bosch system and the association plans to spend around $50,000 for the project.

"A drawback of this is that you're relying on ISPs to bring those feeds back and anything can happen with those," he said.

Center City District

The Center City pilot is a proposed hard fiber integration with a nearby SEPTA station. It will be stored at and transfered from the station to the DVIC.

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No VPNs

Using VPNs would be a worst case scenario, he said. "If you're trying to do real-time crime fighting, well, looking at things in real time doesn't usually work very well. You're going to have a 10-15 second lag and your standard video streaming issues."

In addition to “a litany of other integration issues,” Vidro said at Secured Cities that he initially shied away from a hard integration of private cameras because the city has little control over how people use private cameras and doesn’t want to be liable if they are used improperly.

“Someone puts a camera in a dressing room and then we have it up on our big screen,” he said. For now, the city keeps a list of private cameras and their locations that it can reference when they need footage from a certain area.

Problems With Traditional PSIMs

Vidro has a background in the security industry. He worked for 15years as an integrator before being tapped by Philly to be a subject matter expert for the Philadelphia Critical Infrastucture Protection Program (PCIPP). The program included a contract for Microsoft to build a PSIM and datamining tool, which he says lacked the usability he would have preferred.

One of the main problems with the Microsoft system was the lack of customization and control. If the city wanted to add more data sources, it meant going through the vendor. There was no way to make changes and customize the software without calling the vendor back.

"We do use it and it works but going forward we are going to go with something more open infrastructure and easy to work with," he said. Later Vidro was called on to vet various PSIMs as the director of integration for the DVIC project. He says he looked at a number of them including the Vidsys platform, used by Baltimore, and a OmniPresence 3D platform. 

"When PSIMs entered the picture, platforms that existed at the time like video management systems, access control systems, intrusion detection systems and the like seemed to all climb on board the wagon. So what you ended up with were these systems very capable of doing what they were born to do but lacking in the areas added to make them a 'PSIM,'" he said.

He is skeptical that any PSIM would work for a city like Philadelphia. "Many PSIM manufacturers purport to have all this connectivity and functionality and that it's compatible with anything on the planet, but what they don't tell you is that you're not going to be equipped to build onto that system. There were just a lot of requirements we had that we weren't going to be able to build into this system and that' what really drove me to look for something else."

Who Should Use PSIMs?

"For a city the size of Philadelphia, it makes zero sense," he said of out-of-the-box PSIMs. "I think PSIMs can be beneficial in a small closed off type system, one where you don't have a massive network and you're still buidling one." He said PSIMs like the Vidsys option are better fit for mid-sized cities who want to link cameras together but don't have a lot of dynamic situations going on.

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