Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Answer: What do these cameras do?

After the all of the hubbub of the IRE conference quieted down, I turned my attention to answering our question from this week, which is, after all, a kind of investigative bit of reporting.   

As I said, when I posted this Challenge, I didn't know the answer.  After more hours than I care to admit, I think I have the answer... or at least part of it.  I'm sure I'll keep poking around on this one over the next couple of weeks, trying to nail down the details.  

The Challenge was, given a few pictures:  

   1.  What are these cameras doing? 

   2.  Who owns (or installed) the cameras?  

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

To remind you, here's the camera we seek.  They're mounted on top of streetlights at intersections, one pointing each way.   

I started this search by doing a bunch of obvious searches: 

     [ Palo Alto traffic camera ] 

     [ Palo Alto street camera ] 

and so forth.  

I learned a good deal, but didn't get anything definitively.  

Like many readers, I found the current "Bicycle camera monitoring" controversy.  But if you look for the pictures associated with the "bicycle cameras," you'll see they look very different.  

Image from Palo Alto Online (May 16, 2014).

As you can see, these cameras are a temporary fixture: they're on top of poles that are chained to telephone poles.  It's a self-contained unit--there's no video cable leading out to some higher authority.  (Apparently the video is put onto a DVR in the red box, which is then examined by humans later to track bikes and pedestrians.  The data is then deleted, according to the City.  Palo Alto Online article.)  

That's not what we seek. So that's a dead end.  

I tried various other combinations:  [ white streetlight camera ]  [ cylindrical traffic camera ] and had little luck.  

I changed my query to: 

     [ Palo Alto streetlight camera ] 

and in result #1 I found this: PhotoEnforced.com (which seems to be a crowd sourced database of camera enforced locations.  Begun in 2001, the open database of red light cameras and speed cameras (and fines) is continually updated by users from around the U.S. 

But this shows only 1 camera, and that's in East Palo Alto (which is a separate city from Palo Alto).  Another dead end.  

It seems that these cameras aren't "red light" cameras (those tend to have multiple lenses and a flash), and they're not speed cameras (which have a different shape).   See this Trapster article for a nice way to tell them apart. See also this article on Digital-Camera-Pictures blog. 

I was able to find similar cameras by doing an Image search for: 

     [ traffic surveillance camera ] 

In the process of reading about these cameras, I picked up the phrase "traffic surveillance," that seems to be what these cameras are called. (I think I picked it up from the Trapster article linked above.)  

Time to change strategies.  

One well known place for clues about hot-button topics like this is the local newspaper.  I started checking them: the Palo Alto Post, and the Palo Alto Weekly are the two big newspapers in town. (Well, there is a 3rd newspaper--the "Daily News," but you can't search them via Google as they prevent the Google spiders from indexing their content and their own search engine seems broken.)  

So let's check the local news:  

     [ site:paloaltoonline.com  traffic camera ]

Found this article which asks "So what are those camera atop the streetlights on Arastradero?"  (Great question!  I swear I didn't know about this article before writing up the Search Challenge.)  

The article actually doesn't say much.  BUT the online reader comments DO!  (And this is why you skim the reader comments.) 

One letter-writer points out that the Santa Clara County has its own traffic cameras.  The reader helpfully provided the link, but it was a dead link.  But that gave me enough of a hint to search for 

     [ site:www.sccgov.org traffic camera ]  

(www.sccgov.org is the site of the Santa Clara County)

The first hit looked like what I wanted:  "View Real-Time County Traffic Cameras

And within a few clicks I was able to see the live map of cameras that the County runs.  Here it is, live traffic monitoring!  

I'd thought I'd tracked it down.  BUT NO!  This is not what I'm seeking! 

First, the map above doesn't show the street intersections I was curious about (Charleston and Nelson, for example).   When I look at the mapped intersections using Streetview, I find that these are SQUARE cameras, not cylindrical.  It's a different kind of camera.  

By this point I'd spent several hours looking through various resources.  And while I'm happy doing that, it seemed as though I was missing something obvious. 

So I looked up the phone number of the Traffic Department for the city and gave them a call. 

Obvious, right? 

I left a message, in just a couple of hours, one of the folks from the City of Palo Alto Traffic Department called me back.  

In our conversation he confirmed that the "white cylindrical cameras on the streetlights" were "traffic monitoring cameras" that are used to trigger light changes.  That is, they're currently used to watch the box opposite the traffic light and then switch the light (a task that was previously done by in-the-asphalt ground loops).  

When I asked "but I see the maintenance guys still fixing the loops at these intersections," he replied that they're still used for redundancy.  

"What happens to the video?" I asked.  "It's written to memory at the curbside box," he said, "but it's not transmitted anywhere else." 


"Yeah, really."  He paused.  "Although if we ever get them connected to our fiber network, we'll be able to monitor those intersections in real-time."  

So there you have it.  The official word from the City itself.  With only a tiny hedge about what's possible in the future.  

Search Lessons:  

The obvious lesson here really is the most obvious--sometimes it's faster just to call the City and ask.  

Second, there are still some things that are hard to find.  You'd think, in these days of goverment transparency, that something like a "map of the traffic cameras" would be on the city's website, but that apparently isn't the case.  

Skeptical Dan
Third, as you do your investigation you have to keep checking... in my case, I found many dead ends and things that LOOK like success (the bicycle cameras, for instance), only to discover that they weren't really what I was looking for.  

A useful attitude to keep in mind is one of supreme skepticism.  If it helps, imagine that you're going to show your newly discovered result to your teacher and explain why you believe this is the right answer.  

Imagine, if you will, trying to explain what you found to this guy on the right...


I was impressed by the quality of the searching done by the SearchResearchers.  

Like Fred, I found the West Sacramento page ("What are those gizmos?") in an early search, but I wanted to get deeper into the story, so I kept looking. 

Jodimillard also found the SCC camera site, but correctly noticed that it wasn't what we were seeking.  

However... Unlike Ramón, I did NOT find the City of Palo Alto Request For Quotation for the video camera installation.  He did.  That's a great find.  (But we need to remember that the cameras have been installed since at least 2004.  This RFQ is for 2011, and the work wouldn't get done until much later. 

Nevertheless, the RFQ asks for the installation of the "Vantage RZ4-AWDR color camera," which you can look up to find the manufacturer specs, and a picture of the camera.  

which is just what we were looking for.  

When I read the RFQ carefully I found this interesting phrase:  

6.1.8  The interface unit shall support streaming video technology using MPEG4 and H.264  standards to allow the user to monitor video detection imagery over the Ethernet  interface. Motion JPEG streaming video shall not be allowed.
6.1.10  The user shall be able to select a quad view of all of the four cameras simultaneously  on the output video monitor by depressing the menu button. 

Which means that the Traffic guy from the city was absolutely correct.  The cameras CAN be used for remote monitoring one at a time, or all 4 together.  (And, of course, remote video capture, although that's not mentioned in the RFQ, but it would be easy enough to setup.)  The max resolution of the video is 720 X 486 (D1 resolution), which might barely be enough to capture license plates.  Maybe.  

Based on this information I did a search for

     [ site:cityofpaloalto.org "video detection" ] 

and found that the contract (for $79K) was awarded to Iteris (the maker of the detection system) on June 1, 2011.  I assume that those cameras were added sometime after that.  

Now, if I could only find that room buried deep within City Hall that monitors all of the (hypothetical) traffic cameras.  

Search on! 



  1. Hello Dr. Russell. The wait for the answer is totally worthy. This was a great challenge and for me this kind is the hardest just because as you mentioned there is no a final answer to get in one page. I mean if you ask (and is just a silly example) where is Googleplex? The answer is just one. In this challenge many answers could fit and the true one as you mentioned was not easy to find.

    There is so much information and knowledge in the answer. Thanks, Dr. Russell.

    I really like the Skeptical Dan photo. That is awesome. Since today, that Dan will be part of my everyday searches.

    Your links are great, Remmij, and also very funny. I enjoyed them.

    Out of topic but also in Search Mode New Google Maps game Smart Pins is pretty cool. It is like A Google a Day just like in Google Maps. Therefore, you need to look for the answer in regular Google Search and then search the place in maps.

  2. Dr. Russell and everyone, any of you know how the switching light process works? Thanks

    1. Ramón In my city this is a brief outline of what they are doing to improve traffic flow using technology. It's been in place for 3 years now.
      "Real-Time Travel Congestion and Travel Time Information System
      The City of Calgary has activated a Bluetooth detection technology along Deerfoot Trail to give Calgarians real-time information about the travel time along Deerfoot Trail during their commute.
      This innovative technology collects publicly available information from Bluetooth devices and estimates travel times and congestion. These times are then displayed on electronic signs at key locations along the freeway.
      The benefits of this technology to Calgarians are:
      Improved ability for drivers to make informed route planning choices.
      Decreased driver frustration.
      Collection of transportation data for planning purposes.
      Reduction of drivers using handheld devices to predict traffic during their commute.
      Traffic Responsive Signal Control Systems
      Signal timings are determined and adjusted based on real-time traffic data that is collected through wireless devices that analyze the data and provide the best signal timing plan to fit the conditions. Properly timed signals can make a significant difference to traffic flow by reducing congestions and queuing."

      Phoning city hall is something I would avoid at almost any cost. Dr. Dan I am impressed you got what info you did get. I really enjoyed reviewing your IRE presentation. I am sure we all would have enjoyed being a fly on the wall, since there was no sitting room :).

  3. Ramón, this was the best explanation I ran across (there well may be better…) starts about 3 minutes into the video — at least that is how their system handles light switching/control…
    non-linear sequential movement controlled by camera/optical input
    state machine
    OH noooo, I sense Dan's brow rising…