SEPTA is going to use artificial intelligence technology on some of its security cameras in an effort to reduce gun violence on subway platforms.
The service, from Conshohocken-based ZeroEyes, includes both software and monitoring. It has the stamp of approval from the Dept. or Homeland Security as an anti-terrorism agency, which also means less liability for the company and the transit authority if something goes wrong.
SEPTA plans to roll out the program to subway stations in January for a six-month pilot program. This is the first time ZeroEyes technology has been used in a major transit system, the company said when announcing the contract last week.
The Board of Transport Authorities approved the program at this month’s meeting, as part of the company’s efforts to keep passengers safe.
Violence on SEPTA has increased in recent years a jump of 80% in reports of assaults and robberies from 2019 to 2021, according to The Inquirer. The upswing led SEPTA to seek partnerships like the one with ZeroEyes, said agency spokesperson Kelly Greene, along with a series of other reactions.
“SEPTA was looking to test this kind of technology as another tool to keep riders and employees safe,” Greene told Billy Penn. “We’ve talked to other tech companies, as well as companies using it, and ZeroEyes is a good place for us to start, especially because they have a local presence.”
Founded by Navy SEALs and veterans in 2018, ZeroEyes has been based in Conshohocken since its inception, but its clients extend beyond the region. The grid includes:
- South Side Area School District in Beaver County
- Ellsworth Air Force BaseSouth Dakota
- Subaru, FedEx and Verizon
- Florida’s Seminole County School District
The six-year-old company was already looking to expand into public transportation, said co-founder Sam Alaimo, who pointed to “steadily increasing” public transportation crime rates in major US cities.
New York, Chicago and Charlotte have that too faced with increasing violence according to a study by the Mineta Transportation Institute in August, although things have been improving in some areas recently.
NYC transit crime is “down 8.6% this year from 2019,” says an NYPD chief said in Sept. In Philadelphia, violent crime on SEPTA for the first three months of the year was 15% less than compared to 2021, according to KYW.
How should the weapon detection work?
ZeroEyes’ claim to fame lies in two things.
- The software: Called the DeepZero AI system, it’s built to integrate into pre-existing security cameras and recognize swinging weapons in seconds. When that happens, it sends an alert to law enforcement and other designated recipients.
- The service: Also referred to as the “24/7 Operations Center”, this provides a check on the AI. Military-trained observers verify that the DeepZero system correctly identified a raised gun, then alert the appropriate law enforcement contacts.
The first AI alert is advertised as coming within 3 to 5 seconds of someone firing a gun, and the human monitor’s report happens within a minute, according to the company. The idea is to encourage a rapid response that can stop the violence as soon as possible, or even before it starts.
The SECURITY law is a Department of Homeland Security program that aims “to ensure that the threat of liability does not prevent potential manufacturers or sellers of counterterrorism technologies” from developing such programs, by establishing “a system of ‘risk management’ and a system of to create ‘dispute management’” in the event of a terrorist act.
No facial recognition, but ‘cyclorama’ simulations
Some camera surveillance software used by government agencies has been the subject of criticism for built-in bias, but there is no facial recognition at work in ZeroEyes AI according to a press release about the program announcement.
“ZeroEyes’ AI does not perform facial recognition, and does not receive, take, store, or share videos or images of a person,” the release said.
The company relies on its tech lab, which “includes full cyclorama green screen coverage to simulate our customers’ live sites,” said co-founder Alaimo, who is also ZeroEyes’ Chief Revenue Officer.
A cyclorama is a panoramic view of a scene viewed from within the frame. This workspace allows the company to simulate reacting to a gun waving in a SEPTA station. The simulations Alaimo refers to seem to address the problem that arises because there isn’t much usable footage from the beginning of the shoot. Algorithms need examples, lots of them, to make smart decisions, and they’re less smart if they don’t have enough data to draw from.
With 1% of cameras already watching SEPTA riders
No new cameras are explicitly installed for this project, even though SEPTA’s camera network continues to grow.
The ZeroEyes system will be controlled by about 300 cameras at stations along the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines, according to spokesman Greene, including those on “platforms, stairwells, concourse corridors” and elsewhere.
SEPTA has already taken steps to make greater use of its video surveillance. In May it announced a new virtual patrol unit, consisting of eight workers. They will be tasked with examining the system’s 30,000 cameras across stations and vehicles, with the aim of making more informed decisions about where patrol officers should be sent and getting them to the areas that need them most.
What makes a successful pilot?
It is clear that a reduction in gun violence at SEPTA subway stations, and a faster response time to deter or reduce the violence, is the overarching goal.
But it’s unclear how much reduction the agency hopes to see, and how officials will measure that. Are there fewer shootings in general? Fewer deaths? Fewer injuries? More arrests? All of the above?
“SEPTA plans to develop metrics for evaluation as the six-month pilot gets under way,” spokesperson Greene told Billy Penn.
Even in serious situations, developing key metrics as a period of study progresses isn’t considered ideal, notes Carnegie Mellon software engineer Mark Kasunic. In a Department of Defense sponsored presentationhe recommends defining performance standards that help to ‘explicitly’ determine the effectiveness of a program before implementing it.
ZeroEyes was a little more specific about what it would consider a successful pilot.
“If the detections prevent gun-related violence, accelerate arrests and result in an overall reduction in crime on the SEPTA system, the program will be considered an unqualified success,” said Alaimo, the company’s co-founder.
What happens if SEPTA still considers the program a success?
SEPTA already has some ideas on how to expand the use of ZeroEyes, although these will depend on how the collaboration has played out after six months of use.
First, it could bring ZeroEyes to other SEPTA locations and vehicles: think buses, train stations and trolley stations, according to spokesperson Greene.
The next step could also be better coordination between the soon-to-be Virtual Patrol team.
“Both the Virtual Patrol and ZeroEyes initiatives can help us take a proactive approach to security by monitoring our existing extensive camera network,” said Greene. “We will determine how the two programs can complement each other as they roll out in the coming months.”