Joburg's anti-crime street cameras hailed as better than booms

CCTV network gives suburbs real-time data about crime

26 May 2019 - 00:00 By JEFF WICKS


For years, Johannesburg's wealthy have used booms to try to keep crime out of their leafy suburbs, with varying degrees of success. Now surveillance is going hi-tech, with thousands of fibre-based camera masts that use military-grade artificial intelligence software to detect crime in real time.
The camera network, built by Vumacam, places vast swathes of the city under constant watch and could have as many as 15,000 cameras in use by the end of the year.
Footage - beamed across 108 suburbs - is instantly analysed by the smart software which identifies potential threats and can even track stolen and suspicious cars using number plate recognition technology.
Analysing the live video feed, the software effectively "learns" what is normal in the street or avenue the camera is pointed at, and when something out of the ordinary happens, security companies that have bought access to the feed are alerted.
Security companies pay for access to the camera network, a cost which is passed on to their clients.
But the roll-out has not had an effect on booms in the city, with the Johannesburg Roads Agency saying there has been an increase in applications recently.
Lisa Seftel, of the city's transport department, said 416 boom gates were in operation in city suburbs, with 10 new applications received since September last year.
"There are a number of areas currently operating without authorisation from the city," she said.
Richard Shuttle, of the Greater Sharonlea Residents Forum, described members of the organisation as the "godfathers of the camera system". Their use of technology predated Vumacam's expansion.
"We realised the booms weren't working nearly a decade ago. Back then we went hi-tech and we pioneered neighbourhood security in the city," he said.
"The people wave to the guard and have a bit of nice warm blanket feeling, but they have little benefit. They were costing us R60,000 a month and we decided to push that money into cameras.
"From having petty crime and driveway robberies almost daily, we whittled it down dramatically over a period of six months. Once the cameras were installed and we created a high-visibility presence intentionally, we saw a drop."
Claude Nortje, former chair of the Randpark Residents Association, said they too had abandoned the booms, with traditional methods of controlling access and patrols losing efficacy.
"With number plate recognition we know when dodgy vehicles come into the area, which is far more advantageous than a guard who often doesn't even pay mind to the number plates. Because our camera network collects data, when that criminal comes back we know about it," he said.
In a demonstration of the system to the Sunday Times, Vumacam CEO Ricky Crook said the gate-keeping of their network and software was heavily regulated and audited to guard against abuse, with security companies having to apply for access to it.
"Using millions of lines of code to interpret the shape, size, speed and direction of objects, 95% of the footage showing nothing is filtered out, allowing camera operators to focus on exactly they need to watch.
"Only when there is something to look at is it flagged for an operator to either send help or ignore," he said.
Because the system is constantly learning, the algorithm needs a stable feed, made possible with the fibre network which has spread across the city. Vumatel is a shareholder of Vumacam, but the camera system operates off any quality fibre network.
"Instead of each security company putting up their own cameras and not communicating with each other, we're a common platform. We can tell you that a car involved in a crime in one area has moved to another and actively follow its movement," Crook said.Anthony Minnaar, retired Unisa research professor in criminal justice studies, said though the use of CCTV in residential areas was not on the same scale as in developed countries, SA was on trend.Sean Jammy, of CAP security, said their access to the CCTV network had already paid dividends."We have been able to assist police in numerous arrests of wanted individuals as a result of the camera network. We are hoping to grow our successes further as communities fund additional cameras," he said.Beagle Watch managing director Dave Casey said camera networks had allowed them to track a gate-motor theft syndicate and hand a dossier of evidence to police.

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