A bird's-eye view of every part of city


The aerial snapshot of Steve Ford's Eastern Avenue rowhouse appears a bit blurry from an altitude of about 2,500 feet. But the rooftop deck perched atop his house facing Patterson Park is clearly visible.

Ford was surprised to learn that the bird's-eye digital image of his rooftop is readily accessible on a city government laptop. But new technology purchased by the city gives local officials the ability to view all sides of Ford's house - and of every building in Baltimore.

As the city's Web site explains: "Over 20,000 images of Baltimore are available," allowing city officials to "literally view, measure, and analyze any property, intersection, tree or other feature in the city."

This comprehensive view of every nook and cranny in Baltimore is the result of sophisticated aerial digital photography by Pictometry International Corp. of Rochester, N.Y., which uses airplane-mounted cameras to create the detailed mosaics. Other jurisdictions that have hired Pictometry use the photographs to help firefighters and police respond to emergencies. And in Baltimore, where Mayor Martin O'Malley encourages the use of cutting-edge technology throughout city government, the Pictometry images will even find their way into courtrooms as a trial tool.

But for now, city housing officials have been among the first here to integrate the images into day-to-day departmental operations. Superimposing deck-permit data over corresponding aerial images, housing officials can easily see which decks have permits. Software marks any address that does have a permit with a red dot. No red dot means no permit - and a visit from a housing inspector.

When the images were taken in January of the 2300 block of Eastern Ave. where Ford lives, eight houses had decks. Six had permits. Ford's deck wasn't one of them. He said his deck has a permit, but city records indicate otherwise.

Ford said he does not object to the city owning such images, unless, he added, "it's used for nickel-and-dime stuff like that."

But permits are no nickel-and-dime problem, especially in Ford's Canton neighborhood. Illegally built rooftop decks not only represent lost revenue to the city but can be safety hazards.

"I think it's dangerous to do such work and not have permits," said Stephany Palasik, president of the Canton-Highlandtown Community Association. "It's a problem throughout the area."

'A legitimate use'

While use of such technology represents a growing body of information available to governments about citizens, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland is not concerned about the Pictometry images because they will be updated only every two years. While the technology gives a clear picture of the streetscape, it doesn't show fine detail, such as license plate numbers and faces.

"One could say there's a legitimate use for that," said Stacey Mink, a spokeswoman for ACLU of Maryland.

A privacy group in Washington, where Pictometry's technology is also being used, warns that such technology empowers governments to increasingly encroach on private lives.

"It's a challenge to figure out how to allow the government to engage in legitimate collection without becoming an entity that can track every petty instance of your life like jaywalking or putting a roof deck on your house," said Chris Jay Hoofnagle, associate director for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Such data collection alters the balance of power between the individual and the government."

Aerial mapping is not new for governments. For years, the city has obtained overhead images of Baltimore to provide geographic data for maps, said Bill Ballard, director of the city's Enterprise Geographic Information Services group, whose office manages all city mapping data. But those images were always straight-down pictures.

In November, the city paid Pictometry $54,075 to photograph every address in Baltimore from every direction. In January, pilots in a Cessna 172 crisscrossed the city at 5,000 feet for broader swaths and at 2,500 feet to obtain neighborhood-size shots, said Dante Pennacchia, Pictometry's senior vice president of sales and marketing.

Three digital cameras on the plane constantly clicked pictures: One lens faced straight down while two others, protruding through holes in the plane's sides, took photographs at 45-degree angles, Pennacchia said. Each image is labeled by latitude and longitude as it's recorded, allowing city officials to measure distances, heights, widths and slopes of any street, object or structure in the city.

Also new is integrating other databases, such as the permit records, with these more detailed images. The photographs are also useful as virtual maps of neighborhoods and buildings.

Firefighters on their way to a nighttime blaze, for example, could type the address into a laptop computer loaded with Pictometry images and - as they raced to the scene - get a clear photograph of the structure at that address. They could also see what obstructions might be on the roof or in an alley. And by clicking and dragging the computer mouse, they could measure the building's height and its distance to neighboring structures.

The Arlington County, Va., Fire Department obtained Pictometry's images of its fire coverage area, which includes the Pentagon, nine months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Pennacchia said. The images guided firefighters by helping them quickly measure the dimensions of the impacted area of the Pentagon, he said.

Pictometry's 3 1/2 -year-old technology is being used by 100 government jurisdictions, including New York City, Massachusetts and Montgomery County. Other clients include federal agencies such as the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A few months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Washington officials hired the company to map - with federal agents in tow - the entire city.

"You can read signs on a supermarket," said Dan Sadler, a Geographic Information Services technician for Montgomery County. "In many, many circumstances, it has replaced field checking."

Use in courts

The technology also might become useful in trials as prosecutors attempt to explain the circumstances of a crime.

Baltimore's state's attorney's office is beginning to train its prosecutors so they can use the Pictometry images to better orient juries to crime and accident scenes, and to verify witness statements about locations.

For example, the software allows prosecutors to draw the location of bodies at a crime scene, where bullets left marks and where casings were found.

"It's a great way of taking juries to the locations," said Darren O'Brien, an assistant state's attorney.

Like employees in other city agencies, prosecutors are just becoming comfortable with the technology before introducing it into their daily work.

"If you call us in three months," O'Brien said, "I could give you dozens of names of cases where we're using it."

So far, the city housing department has used the technology to identify hundreds of rooftop decks apparently built without permits.

Housing officials identified 460 decks without permits - 289 in Canton, 119 in Federal Hill, 52 in Fells Point - said Eric Letsinger, deputy housing commissioner for code enforcement. There are approximately 3,000 rooftop decks in the city, mostly in neighborhoods ringing Baltimore's waterfront, and increased enforcement on all types of building permits have increased revenue from them to $8.2 million for the 12-month period that ended in August.

Inspectors armed with Pictometry images have just begun knocking on doors of residents with nonpermitted decks.

Steve Ford, the Eastern Avenue homeowner whose deck appears to be on the housing department's no-permit list, said he had his house inspected and assumed everything was in order before he purchased it in December 2002.

"I'm completely unaware of any permit requirements," he said. Because of Pictometry, that's probably about to change.

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