Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Wednesday Search Challenge (6/25/14): What do these cameras do?

If you're like me, you'll sometimes notice something in your environment and wonder, "What's that?"  

Recently I noticed a bunch of unmarked cameras on top of light poles at traffic intersections near where I live.  Suddenly, it seemed, every intersection with a traffic light suddenly sprouted a camera that was pointed at each lane of traffic.  A three-way intersection has three cameras, a regular four-way intersection has four cameras, and so on.  (To be honest, when I check archival Streetview images, I see they've been there for at least 7 years, so this isn't a new thing.  But I JUST now noticed them.  And when I ask people about the cameras, 9-out-of-10 people say "what cameras"?)  

Initially I thought these were for visual traffic detection, something to replace the big loops of wire that detect when a car pulls up to the stop line.  But that didn't seem to make sense because I saw maintenance folks still fixing the loops.  

I did a little poking around, and it seems pretty clear that these are not red-light violation detection cameras.  (Or if they are, nobody seems to be getting tickets, and it's a huge waste of money!)  

So the question is, what are they?  That's today's Challenge.  And I have to tell you that I do NOT know the definitive answer to this Challenge.  (I think I have a good idea based on my searches this week, but I'm not 100% sure.  We'll work this one out together.)  

   1.  What are these cameras doing? 

   2.  Who owns (or installed) the cameras?  

   3.  What happens to the images being captured by the cameras?  

Here are 4 fairly high-quality images that I took just last week.  From this information, can you figure out the answers to the Challenge questions?   (You can click on these images to get the full resolution original file.)  

As you can see, there are few (or none?) identifying marks on the cameras.  No brand names, no part numbers that I can see... not much to go on.  This strikes me as odd in-and-of-itself.  The pole is marked; the light fixture is marked; there are part numbers on everything... except the cameras.

To save you the trouble of looking up the EXIF data, these are at the corner of Charleston and Nelson Drive in Palo Alto, CA.  (Lat/long:  37.4192351, -122.1115148)  But they're the same at essentially every intersection.  

Here are a bunch of images from Streetview of nearby intersections. 

It strikes me as odd that this major infrastructure deployment (cameras on EVERY streetlight) was done without any obvious announcement to the public.  Of course, it's possible that I missed the news item, but this seems fairly... well... odd. 

Can we figure out what these cameras are doing?  

Search on, Search Researchers!  


  1. I knew that there were controllers on traffic lights that allow emergency vehicles change the lights to allow them to move through traffic, I began searching for [ emergency vehicle cameras intersections ]. In the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) I found someone that had the same question about cameras popping up in Pima County on a discussion board.
    Camera's at intersections around Pima County??? - These are not ...

    Reading the posts in that I gleaned some terminology that I used for my next search
    [ strobe light camera detectors emergency ] I switched to Image search using those terms and my first result matched your image. It took me to a site for West Sacremento.
    What are those gizmos? Are you on camera at local traffic intersections?
    There I got that they are video detection cameras that can help the traffic flow by detecting approaching cars to change the lights.
    Tried searching [ traffic light video detection cameras ] and verified this, but needed to change to finding specific information to your location Palo Alto.
    Kept adding terms to finally end up with [ california transportation agency traffic signal cameras -"red light" palo alto ] to get to the PDF for Citywide Traffic Signal Upgrade Phase II - City of Palo Alto
    Near the end of a document is a map showing the points where upgrades would be made and through some twisting of my head locating the noticeable circular streets matched it to where you took one of your pictures. Also the document mentions Charleston.

    1. What are these cameras doing? Helping to keep traffic moving. "SynchroGreen optimizes signal timing for arterials, side streets, and pedestrians through real-time adaptive traffic control."

    2. Who owns (or installed) the cameras? City of Palo Alto

    3. What happens to the images being captured by the cameras? The images are used to regulate the lights for traffic control. They could be transmitted to the central control system. After that I didn't find anything that they are saved and posted to Youtube of the stupid things drivers do. ;-)

  2. I started my search at 11:03. As I was typing I selected: street light cameras controversy from Google's suggestions. That led me in the wrong direction... to all the discussion about red-light monitoring cameras. I then tried "automated cameras" city of california budget -"red light" - Google Search. Better, but still nothing conclusive. I also had trouble eliminating red lights from the search. The search still allowed red-lights or the plural form. I then tried: camera usage traffic signals. That led me to this site:
    That was on the money it seemed. So, to verify that I was on the right track I did a Google Maps search in St. Louis and located some of the cameras in question. See camera @38.623910, -90.515680.
    According to the FAQ these are purchased with tax payers dollars and no images are recorded.

  3. Good day, Dr. Russell, fellow SearchResearchers

    This is what I have until now.

    Searched :

    [cameras nelson drive california | charleston california]
    [cameras "nelson drive california" ]

    Camp Nelson Traffic and Road Conditions there mention caltrans

    [caltrans cameras intext:charleston]
    [caltrans cameras]

    Clicked in your address to see where the point is located.

    [Palo Alto California video cameras]

    [Searched camera image with Google image search] Traffic Signal Video Sensor

    [Traffic Signal Video Sensor Palo Alto California]

    Traffic video Detection Equipment

    [Iteris Vantage Edge2 Processor]

    Citywide Traffic Signal Upgrade

  4. Query [traffic cameras at intersections]

    First result is St.Louis’s video cameras at signalized intersections. It states these are real time traffic computerized cameras monitoring specific zones. They have no law enforcement uses, are incapable of reading license plates, and no zooming capabilities. These are mounted on public property, high enough to capture all lanes, and replace the”loops” previously used to monitor traffic.

    Just to check another site I select another result from same SERP @

    Richmond B.C. has an interactive map where anyone can click on certain intersections to see real time traffic.

    At a recent coffee break we had a discussion about these type of cameras because my friend thought they were all “red light” cameras so I had checked this out in my city. I don’t know about others but in my city I can check the city website for the location of each red-light monitored intersection. The difference is the location of the red-light cameras to read rear license plates. They are mounted on individual posts and not positioned on the intersection signal-light posts.

    Then if we believe Big Brother is not actually monitoring us have a look at this article with the heading “One surveillance camera for every 11 people in Britain, says CCTV survey”. Now these are closed-circuit television cameras but I would have a hard time distinguishing between the two types of cameras.

    The question about no labeling had me checking out various manufacturers. It was then I realized that at any intersection we have posts, signal lights, pedestrian signal lights, & street lighting but I don’t know if any of these are labelled. I’m going now to the coffee shop & I will see if our intersections have any manufacturers posted. Would labels be a considered a distraction?
    The bigger question I have is whether existing cameras can be enhanced for more purposes than we believe intended.

  5. My best guess is that these cameras belong to the County of Santa Clara's Traffic Operations Center under the Roads and Airports Department. You can see the feeds from the major expressways here: but it does not include Charleston/Nelson intersection. The best description that I found of the project was from a blogger that toured the Center: .There are various reports which refer to "traffic calming" projects with references to the Charleston corridor (pg 172 but I wish that this information was a bit stronger.....

    1. Actually, I take part of this back. The above would deal mainly with county maintained roads, where Charleston/Nelson would be maintained by the city of Palo Alto's Traffic Operations Department. The following report refers to modernizing intersections, including those along Charleston, and adding closed circuit TV (CCTV) cameras: One of the reasons that this challenge is probably more difficult is that many of the pages for Palo Alto's traffic operations are marked as "Last Updated March 20, 2007" lol

  6. [palo alto traffic camera]

    Big article in Palo Alto Weekly May 13 2014 answers every question [I hope]

    1. What are the cameras doing ? & 2. Who owns or installed the cameras? : THe City has been putting up cameras since April 28 at different locations every week to gather data on number of bicyclists and pedestrians. However other sources say contractors/third party were installing them but the city would not where they were until they were installed. [sounds peculiar to me]

    The video is processed by three different firms for 50 locations. Each camera is in place for one week which explains why they have not been noticed. T

    3. What happens to the images being captured by the cameras? Well, they are examined at high speed by three outside firms to tally up the numbers of cyclists and pedestrians "in preparation for a new wave of bike boulevard projects that the city is working on" The city gets only the numbers of users. Maybe you mean what happens to the video afterwards ? If so, the answer to that is that "it is discarded" Tells the same story under the headline Palo Alto Camera Mystery Explained

    CBS also covered this.

    Three sources to triangulate the mystery solution.

    And evidence they are not enforcing cameras. Citizen reported enforced cameras: None at all

    This was so easy it must wrong though.


  7. — my 2¢; went to streetview to have a look around the ∩ in question…
    Red Light Violation $281

    while these appear to be traffic flow/control related cameras, it is hard to ignore the warning sign
    on Nelson & E. Charleston Rd.… don't see the advisory sign at other nearby intersections, so perhaps that is
    an indicator the cameras can preform multiple functions?? but the primary one seems to be traffic flow/signal control…
    although, if they have real time CCTV capabilities and storage capabilities that a red light function would require…??hmmmm.
    would be interesting to know if the funding stream meanders back to DHS.
    Or maybe the $281 is just psychological warfare on the red light runners — with a 6-8 week lag.

    Jon's find was interesting, on multiple levels, but a different use of temporarily placed cameras — as
    you indicated, the cameras in question have been installed for at least 7 years…

    ?#3 - as to the fate of images captured by the cameras: We can neither confirm nor deny…
    that any such images exist or where or how such images are stored or by whom they can be accessed or for what purposes they can be used… that said, rogue IRS agents in Cincinnati
    only use such data hypothetically - potentially… or not. Thank you for your interest in our organization. This message does not exist.

    nothing to see here, move along, move along in an orderly fashion…
    I met Gene Davis once, a long time ago, in Michigan - I wore stripes
    wow, their own Flickr page - Black Rhythm: worth a look at "original image size"
    kind of a U2 vibe to the soundtrack… weren't we talking about traffic cameras…
    wonder if there are traffic cameras near here? - fwiw, the WikiMiniAtlas is an interesting - albeit - flawed tool, worth exploring

    1. I lost the post due to technical issue with my connection. So, here is the summary.

      Searched Images. Found

      Venture capital firms to cash out of Cyvera through $200m Palo Alto Networks buyout

      [cyvera cameras palo alto]

      Went to my History to re-visit links.

      Traffic Surveillance cameras. Article mentions Utha. Cameras in Palo Alto are the same.

      I also read in links that now data are analyzed for programs and with data mining and video for those cameras (don't know what happens with the SearchResearch Cameras ) video is erased at the moment.

    2. Note that "Palo Alto Networks" actually has nothing to do with the CITY of Palo Alto. It's just accidentally the same name.

  8. Rather than change the direction of my search to a localized approach I continued to expand by searching for more technical information. For example, checking for patents of the real time video cameras in Scholar. Not finding what I wanted I decided to pursue papers written about the use of real time video cameras for traffic management and analysis. My method was to use a Web keyword search & I tried various combinations. I decided based on poor results to place the reading level at advanced to eliminate articles about specific cameras, roads, or intersections. Using an query such as [uses AROUND(5) traffic video cameras" "california"] I found a paper that I have shared which addresses vehicular behavior & methods of detection. Here's a shared pdf presented more for the concept than the specifics.There are some interesting links within the document that looks at various data-sets. If I wanted to know where this technology is going I now have resources within this document.

    I haven't seen an answer to "no brand names" & while I spent some time searching for the reason I conclude that little purpose would be served by placing a label on a camera 30 feet above the ground. Installation of cameras I assume would be based on open bids. Monitoring of cameras may depend on the community whether its government employees or contracted out to third parties. Unless you mean specifically Palo Alto I think the answer could vary.

  9. revisited — I stand corrected, there are multiple red light warnings - @ Middlefield & E. Charleston Rd.:
    another $281
    wonder how they handle bicyclists/boarders?
    Palo Alto -
    another wikiminiatlas PACA
    street cameras might play a role in this too - L.A. way -
    minority report in L.A., sans Tom
    …meanwhile, on the eCoast/NYC - if MS is assisting there, is Goo helping the wCoast?
    NYC, I passed on chatting with a Microsoft Government Specialist…
    the NYC Blue Room - Domain Awareness System
    ⌘F [domain awareness], studied the London model, related to Boston - PBS/Nova

  10. regarding ?3 - this is the NYC policy on camera image metadata retention - soft/fuzzy… maybe 5 years, maybe some other duration, maybe not at all - refer to IRS or EPA for clarification on current standards & practices.
    from 09: Public Security Privacy Guidelines pdf

  11. out of sight of the cameras, needed some comic relief… turns out there is a term for that -
    "If you're like me, you'll sometimes notice something in your environment and wonder, "What's that?"
    Recently I noticed a bunch of unmarked cameras on top of light poles at traffic intersections near where I live. Suddenly, it seemed, every intersection with a traffic light suddenly sprouted a camera that was pointed at each lane of traffic."

    hey, there it is again…

    related: Recency effect
    a privacy & security example:
    $480, CA, a record holder

  12. Site search : City of Palo Alto cameras. Owner : City of Palo Alto. "to support commute and special event traffic" Interested in finding out what happens with the images.

  13. perhaps this is the specific system? out of Topeka - Lenexa, KS… if you can watch the video without your eyes rolling back in your head…
    In|Sync from Rhythm Engineering
    on Vimeo
    wiki bio
    in Mountain View…2011
    twitter traffic

  14. I think a post I just wrote up has just vanished. Following on from remmij's observations...

    It was from various docs from the city promoting robust signalling features and goes on to state: "Of specific benefit to the community will be proven time-based traffic signal coordination
    capabilities, traffic signal coordination recovery strategies from railroad and emergency vehicle preemption
    activities, and the introduction of special traffic supporting features for bicycle, pedestrian and transit users"

    Different cameras used for different purposes

    jon tU