The value of city surveillance systems

Andrea Sorri

The purpose of city surveillance systems is to reduce crime, increase citizen safety, and stop vandalism – but can you put a figure on exactly how much value they bring? When planning installations, the evaluation of a system’s ROI is an important factor. We are all taxpayers, after all, so we should know what we are getting for our money. But that may be easier said than done.

Evaluation of the effectiveness of city surveillance systems is often the first issue that is raised when it comes to safe city indicators. However, it is difficult to consolidate the available statistics in a manner that is valid on a global level. To work out the value of an installation, you would need to break down the figures crime by crime and consider seasonality, environmental conditions on one hand and city surveillance system design and its lifecycle on the other hand.

Each city surveillance system has benefits like reducing incidents of pickpocketing, vandalism, graffiti / tagging and fly-tipping, but differences in the legal definitions and grading of crimes, inaccuracies in official crime data collection and its interpretation, plus cultural factors (such as how open citizens are to reporting issues) make the job of trying to calculate a universally valid ROI more complex. In addition, statistics often fail to show how the crime or vandalism problem may have been displaced to another city area that is less well protected by installed cameras.

Safety perception is also an issue often discussed, the so-called “walking in the dark”. Whether citizens feel safe in certain urban areas in the dark is very subjective and often affected by factors that are not related to the area’s real crime potential: lighting, cleanliness, people loitering, media influence, and isolation from more frequented areas all influence how citizens perceive an area. As a result, places that pedestrians assume to be most dangerous might not always be that dangerous in terms of actual crimes committed – and vice versa.

One aspect that appears more measurable is response time in case of an incident. Network cameras can help measure the average response times for emergency services to respond to an initial distress call. This is an indicator of how well protected citizens actually are. However, response times are also complex to measure as the definition of what constitutes an emergency might vary from city to city or country to country. Some reports average times across 3-5%, others 10% or more.

Cameras used in a safe city project can be an effective support in creating a process for managing, assessing, and optimizing emergency response in public places. For those having to calculate a measurable ROI, while the task is still going to be complex, it’s a good start. For the rest of us, we can all agree that having a safer city lets us all sleep a little better at night.

Axis has compiled a comprehensive TCO (total cost of ownership) study of a large scale city surveillance system. Download the free report here.