Bay Area transit police map a better view of their beat

SAN FRANCISCO'The Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Department is pushing location-based information out to its cops in the field by making data available on wireless devices.

"It has helped a lot with our efficiency," said systems administrator Carissa Goldner. "Dispatch centers are always busy," and now, through notebook computers in cars and handheld devices while on foot, a handful of officers have direct access to the same GIS data as dispatchers.

The department is using software from MapInfo Corp. of Troy, N.Y., to make geographic information system data available to other applications. The software was provided free through the company's homeland security grant program, which began in 2002.

"A lot of smaller locations did not have the funding for the technology to help them serve their areas," said Sabby Nayar, strategic industry manager for MapInfo's government sector sales.
The software used by BART includes:

  • MapInfo Professional, a mapping and geographical analysis engine

  • StreetPro, which provides local street information

  • Routing J Server, a street network analysis engine for routing

  • MapMaker Plus, a geocoding tool for data analysis

  • Discovery, a browser-driven map catalog and viewer application.


Goldner came to BART PD from the California Justice Department, where she had updated that department's mapping systems.

"I came into BART with the purpose of evaluating and updating the technology in the police department," Goldner said. "I recognized that they didn't have any kind of software for mapping."

Mapping was important to the transit agency. The BART rail system carries more than 300,000 riders a day over 200 miles of track through four counties and 26 cities. None of the system's engineering schematics, maps or other documentation was in digital format.

"Our biggest need was to consolidate 30 years of documents in electronic form," Goldner said. "The visual component was great, but what we were really looking for was an information management tool."

The job of digitizing, which Goldner described as "completely obnoxious," was farmed out to Galilee Enterprise of San Leandro, Calif., a MapInfo reseller. After it had been put into digital form, "we made it look pretty," Goldner said.

The first step in using the data was to make it available to dispatchers. Goldner worked with dispatchers to determine their needs and make sure data would be easy to use. Her staff's first idea was to overlay schematics on maps, but that looked too cluttered. So hot links were added to the maps to access underlying diagrams, photos and other information about surrounding locations.

The system gives dispatchers access to a wealth of online data when police respond to calls. There is no real-time traffic data yet to aid in routing police to a scene, but dispatchers have a link to California Highway Patrol dispatchers for this information.

The next step is to make the data available to more than 200 officers in the field. So far, there are only three cars equipped with notebook computers.

"We want to put computers in all the cars," Goldner said. The department plans to begin this process this summer, but "we got impatient, so we bought three computers and put mapping information on them."

The department already has 30 BlackBerry handheld devices from Research in Motion Ltd. of Waterloo, Ontario, for use by police on foot and on trains. BlackBerry service is provided by Nextel Communications Inc. of Reston, Va. The company is wiring underground stations to provide complete coverage of the rail system. So far, four San Francisco stations have been wired.

In late January, three BlackBerrys were provided with map-viewing applications to give beat cops access to the GIS data. "All of the work is being done on the server," rather than on the end device, to minimize bandwidth requirements, Nayar said.

The devices work well for downloading the data, Goldner said. "For me, the only difficulty is in screen size" of the BlackBerrys, she said. "But that was easily addressed by adjusting the zoom level."

The default level for a map downloaded to a handheld device is one mile rather than five miles for desktop use. This required no reformatting, only putting the files in a separate folder on the server, Goldner said.

The response to the new technology has been mixed, Goldner said. "Those who like technology like the new tools," she said. "Those who don't like technology don't like them."

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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