When it came to keeping his suburban Houston, Texas, US neighborhood safe from criminals, IBM client IT architect Chris Culberson had no problem volunteering his time to develop a digital video surveillance system—even though he knew nothing about them. "Being a problem solver and self admitted technology geek, I began to think about ways to improve our collective neighborhood security. These attributes, combined with a strong sense of community service instilled at a young age by my parents, provided motivation to seek a solution," says Chris.
Chris figured he needed a video surveillance solution. "When a crime did occur, local law enforcement was hamstrung by the lack of evidence the criminals left behind and sketchy eyewitness accounts."
The first thing Chris did was approach his Property Owners Association (POA) board with the idea of implementing a neighborhood video surveillance system. He relates the story. “I gained their full support in the fall of 2008. Because our neighborhood shares two entrances with a "sister" subdivision, I also had to sell their POA board on the idea." For this reason, Chris used his own time and money to create a pilot solution in his subdivision. "I needed to show proof points of cost and feasibility," he says.
Learning by doing
Chris jumped in, approaching the problem methodically. He first met with local law enforcement to understand different crime deterrence methodologies and effective evidence gathering. It soon became clear that his neighborhood required a multi-faceted approach.
"We needed a means to capture evidence-quality imagery of vehicles and/or persons entering and exiting our neighborhood. Equally if not more important, we also needed clearly posted signage at each entrance indicating video surveillance was in use to deter criminals."
Like a good solutions architect, Chris tested systems. "There was no available power at the locations where a camera would be most effective, so I initially decided to test fixed, battery powered game cameras used by hunters to evaluate game activity. These cameras offer relatively good image fidelity at a reasonable cost."
Back to the drawing board
After piloting several generations of the fixed game cameras, the failings of the technology became apparent. The cameras simply did not have enough fidelity to capture legible images of vehicle license plates entering and exiting the neighborhood.
Chris explains what he did next. “Well, in this case, the old adage 'you get what you pay for' holds true. For image capture capable of producing legible license plates, I ended up developing a custom IP-based camera solution that combines commercial grade, cost-effective megapixel CCD IP cameras coupled with a high-speed infrared strobe technology. This recipe leverages the fact that most US license plates are manufactured with a base coat of paint highly reflective to infrared light. The end result is our desired criminal deterrence effect plus 24 x 7 stunningly clear, evidence quality images required for a law enforcement investigation."
Crime doesn’t pay
The new system went live in September, 2012 and the first criminal activity was caught on camera the following month. Initially, police were, well, suspicious of Chris’s video. "At first, they were reluctant due to an assumption the images would be grainy like most that they see. However, once I sent them the HD-quality video, they were amazed. They have been very responsive since," says Chris.
The results over the past year show a measurable decrease in neighborhood crime. "Given history, timing, and criminal activity around us, this decrease can only be attributed to the video surveillance system and complementing signage deterring criminals. Houston Police Department crime statistics for our subdivision also reflect this notion with a reduced crime rate as compared to 2012."
The members of the POA board and Chris’s community overwhelmingly praise his efforts. One neighbor wrote to Chris and said, "Thank you for your expertise, diligence & integrity. As you know, without you this may not have gotten done at all and surely without you would have cost considerably more." Chris has also come home and found baked goods and gift cards left on his doorstep, along with personal notes of thanks.
One purpose and dedication to success
Chris is an example of IBM values in action. He says that he remained dedicated to the project and focused on the outcomes. In addition, he took the IBM value, "Innovation that matters," into his volunteer work. "When I could not find a commercial camera and illumination solution to fit our requirements, I developed one."
Chris's work also embodies the nine practices of 1-3-9 which were outlined last year by IBM Chairman and CEO, Ginni Rometty. Chris has taken IBM's practices into his community, becoming essential to his property owner’s association and his neighbors, and making a positive impact. He enumerates the ways he put the practices into action. “I listened for need and developed a vision. I shared what I learned, including the specific technical recipe, with adjacent subdivision POAs now wanting to follow our success. And I was definitely the 'wild duck' with what seemed like a crazy idea at first to many."
The entire experience has been very rewarding for Chris. "My neighbors now sleep better at night as a result of this project. I'm now looking forward to assisting adjacent communities by repeating the process and continually improving it along the way. My best advice to anyone considering a bold volunteer effort is to be patient, exude confidence and remain committed to your vision. Knowing you made a difference is very gratifying."