Walk alone at night across the Washington Avenue bridge on the University of Minnesota campus and someone will be watching - and paying closer attention than in the past.
While there have been cameras on the pedestrian level of the bridge for some time, that footage is now being analyzed in near-real time each night by next-generation security software that can detect whether someone is alone or in a group and whether people's movements are suspicious.
A single person, a lurker or people converging give security monitors a high-tech nudge by the Perceptrak software to pay attention to what's happening on the bridge.
"We can't guarantee that we're going to prevent anything," said Bob Janoski, director of the U's central security office. "Perceptrak doesn't have an arm that reaches out and stops the person from committing a crime or hurting themselves, but what it does is give us a fighting chance to alert the police."
About 1,000 cameras on the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses are monitored in a nondescript office building near the construction site of the university's new on-campus football stadium. Three employees work at a time, 24 hours a day. Monitoring that many cameras, however, is difficult.
That's where the Perceptrak comes in - for now, working on footage from 11 cameras that cover the Washington Avenue bridge and the West Bank steam tunnels.
In the evening and overnight - when traffic on the bridge is minimal and there is a greater risk - one person is assigned almost exclusively to pay attention to actions flagged by Perceptrak.
Looking for trouble
While security officials at the school don't advocate people walking alone across the bridge, they know it happens.
Sometimes converging people on the bridge are harmless. For example, one night two people were taking pictures of each other with the Minneapolis skyline in the background. When they came together to look at the shot on the back of the camera, the software flagged it.
But people converging at night on the bridge could be an assault or a robbery.
"It's not going to make any evaluation or judgment of `this is what you should do,'-" said Wayne LaMusga, an information technology specialist with Central Security at the university. "It's just going to bring something to the operator's mind."
While the pilot program - which cost about $24,000 to install - is only a few months old, security officials hope to find money to expand the program next school year to cameras at other sites, including parking ramps and lots and potentially on Northrop Mall or near residence halls.
"We'd like to add it to areas where there could be activity after hours and in the early morning ... where we could help the police by being an extra set of eyes," Janoski said.
Depending on the location, the software can be set up to detect other actions, including a person falling, erratic movement, a vehicle going the wrong way or an abandoned object.
"It's not something that's going to catch everything all the time," said assistant security director Steve Jorgenson. "It's a tool to help the monitoring center evaluate certain situations as they appear."
No alerts so far
University officials said they have not yet had cause to alert police to either an assault or a potential suicide. Janoski said 17 suicides have been attempted on the bridge in the past decade. But there is evidence elsewhere that the software can be effective.
The university opted for the pilot program after it was used on several East Coast urban universities, including Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and Temple and Penn in Philadelphia.
Johns Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea said that since the program was fully installed in the fall of 2006, there has been at least one instance in which the software has helped police promptly arrest a subject.
While security officials acknowledge that the high-tech software can be construed by some people as having too much of a "big brother" feel to it, they are charged with keeping the campus as safe as possible.
"We want to do everything we can to keep our students safe," Jorgenson said. Cameras "are also a visual deterrent. If you see the cameras, you're less likely to do something there. You can't have police officers on every corner, you can't put a squad car everywhere at all times. But if you know there's a camera there, you're less likely to go up and assault someone there."
More money needed
It seems unlikely that Perceptrak will end up on every camera on campus, but officials would like to see the program grow. Money will determine how quickly that happens.
It costs about $20,000 for each 10 cameras to which the software is added. The university, however, has spent millions of dollars in recent years on security.
Janoski said that the university allocates about $2 million per year for security upgrades. That money has been used for projects ranging from card-access for buildings to things as simple as fencing.
"We're going to compete for that money for this program," he said. "We hope to expand it gradually. It's a tool that can help us do our job better."