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

Maps: Digital aerial images let housing inspectors, firefighters and police study any structure in Baltimore.

September 07, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

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.

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