Project NOLA - 500+ Camera City System at 90% Lower Cost

By Carlton Purvis, Published Dec 03, 2013, 12:00am EST

The most disastrous citywide surveillance system is likely from New Orleans. After spending more than $10 million, it resulted in criminal charges and convictions .... unfortunately against the people involved in deploying it [link no longer available]. Now, it exists as a zombie, offline but still consuming tens of thousands in electrical costs [link no longer available].

At the same time, an online surveillance retailer has quietly built a 500+ all HD city system in New Orleans at 90 percent less than the original city system cost. What's the catch and tradeoffs?

In this note, we analyze the cameras, options and implementation of this system, considering whether this could be a template for other cities.

Background

In 2009, Bryan Lagarde, a former police officer and investigator, launched Project NOLA as a way to increase the amount of evidence the public could provide police after a crime and give local law enforcement better situational awareness.

“We wanted to give people a way to know when something bad was headed their way and we’re really here to help increase the efficiency of the New Orleans police,” he said. The project provides surveillance cameras to the public for discounted prices and in turn uses the footage to help local police solve crimes. Project NOLA also runs a website for emergency alerts and provides residents access to police scanners and public law enforcement information. 

Project NOLA Stats

The online surveillance retailer / project founder claims that:

  • During the last 30 days, Project NOLA was involved in 66 percent of homicide investigations in New Orleans.
  • Footage from Project NOLA has helped clear more than 100 major cases. 

The Cameras 

The cameras are budget, outdoor models.

“In the beginning we were using a lot of Vivotek equipment. Now we’re mainly OEM-ing from overseas, but as long as it’s ONVIF compatible, we’ll put it into our system,” he said.

Most participants buy the standard kit offered by Project NOLA for $295. It consists of a 1.3MP integrated IR camera, a POE splitter and a 50 foot CAT5E cable (full specs here). It also includes lifetime tech support. 

Participants get an additional $95.00 off if the camera will be placed in the location of a recent homicide and an additional $55.00 of is the person is on a fixed income or getting federal assistance. On the other hand, if the participant decides to remove the camera they "may be immediately charged an early termination fee of $150."

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Contrary to NOLA's claims that they do this at or below cost, these camera's specifications are very similar to the super low cost ones included in HD IP kits that likely cost $150 or less.

Sample Videos

Project NOLA has day and night sample videos to showcase camera performance. It is what one would expect for cameras in the class, obviously better than legacy analog kits that many consumer purchasers are used to but not special for MP / IP systems.

Storage

“We talked to to the public and law enforcement and we learned that people believe in surveillance, but they don’t want video to last forever,” Lagarde said. To that end, video is only stored for 10 days -- that was the compromise the public felt most comfortable with. “It’s not often we miss a crime because of the 10-day threshold," he said. 

The video for all 500+ cameras is stored on servers at Project NOLA's headquarters. 

Monitoring

The cameras are always recording but are not always monitored live. Operators will proactively monitor during major events like Mardi Gras or times when the president has visited New Orleans, but on a day-to-day basis, Project NOLA pulls feeds based on tips and police scanner traffic.

When there is a shooting or major incident, Project NOLA immediately starts putting together a video package for law enforcement. “We can often get he videos to the dispatcher before they make it to the crime scene,” he said.

Police do not have access to the cameras. "They have to go through us, but we are always there to assist when bad things happen," he said. They also monitor police scanner traffic for tips on where they should be watching. The video is sent to an FTP server for where law enforcement can download and review video.

Network

To allow Project NOLA’s command center to access cameras, they must be connected to a homeowner’s Internet. If a person doesn't have home Internet service, Project NOLA has worked out an agreement with the local broadband company to provide Internet at a reduced price for people who want to be a part of Project NOLA.

“This has really helped us get the project going in economically challenged areas of the city,” Largarde said.

We suspect that Project NOLA is simply opening holes in firewalls as these cameras do not claim any special phone home / application VPN capabilities.

Non-Profit Status

Largard says Project NOLA has never been about making money. It started out as a side project from his main company, CCTV Wholesalers. After leaving law enforcement in 1994, he started CCTV Wholesalers, then in 2010 he started Project NOLA.

"We basically took the profits from selling our selling video surveillance equipments and designs all around the world. We used that profit to initially fund the now non-profit endeavor, Project NOLA," he said.

CCTV Wholesalers used $300,000 to launch the project. Project NOLA gave away the first 150 cameras to homeowners in the French Quarter. Then it began selling the $295 kits. After adoption spread, Project NOLA was granted non-profit status. Now the project uses funding from CCTV Wholesalers and is able to take donations from the public. The biggest donation so far came from a New Orleans company who gave $10,000 and wanted to have 40 Project NOLA cameras installed in a neighborhood.

Pros and Cons of This Approach

The biggest advantage is clearly the low cost. City wide surveillance systems regularly cost $20,000 or more per camera. With Project NOLA's approach, having homeowners mount it on their property and using existing Internet access, the total cost per camera drops dramatically. We doubt it even costs $1,000 per camera all in.

The second most notable advantage is that it does not require city approval and can be done by concerned citizens.

However, there are a number of major drawbacks to this:

  • Dependant on volunteers and cannot easily choose where cameras are located.
  • Controlled by a private entity who is essentially assuming public / policing responsibility. 
  • Dependent on local Internet for access to camera.
  • Limited to minimal live monitoring of cameras.

It is easy to argue that a true city surveillance is better overall than what Project NOLA is doing. On the other hand, given the radical reduction in cost and complexity, it might provide more net benefits than the massive mega surveillance projects that depend on huge subsidies and questionable results.

Indeed, we believe a similar approach would be beneficial for neighborhood watches.

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