The Safe City and Its Need for Interoperability

Aug. 16, 2019

Many of us value individual safety, especially in cities. Physical security systems can deliver exactly that to citizens, though the management and operation of these systems can be challenging. Cities often use video management systems or other platforms to view and analyze camera footage in order to protect citizens and property, and to respond to events. They may also use intrusion, access control, building automation and fire detection systems, in conjunction with video surveillance.

Cities implementing this connected security approach have been dubbed ‘safe cities.’ Most safe cities share a common infrastructure and operate using sensors and/or cameras over a shared municipal network. Using these sensors and the data from many different devices synthesized through one interface, government officials and law enforcement are afforded a total, holistic view of a city’s security.

Interoperability continues to present one of the greatest operational challenges in safe cities. The most common scenario is that municipalities have several different management systems for city operations that were created by different manufacturers, each with proprietary interfaces for integration. In order to connect its different systems together, cities often end up employing a “build once and maintain forever” approach, in which the continuing cost for integration of the city’s systems becomes prohibitively expensive.

This is where the need for robust and well-defined standards comes into play. ONVIF has published several specifications and profiles for effective integration of devices and clients in the physical security industry, facilitating communication between technologies from different manufacturers and fostering an interoperable system environment. For Video Security systems, ONVIF has released Profile S for video streaming, Profile T for advanced video streaming and Profile G for storage and playback.

ONVIF has also released an export file format specification that outlines a defined format for effective export of recorded material and forensics, which has been adopted by both the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, which makes technology recommendations for U.S. federal law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, and the International Electrotechnical Commission.

In a safe city environment, the playback of video is important in responding to event types, but often incidents are recorded on multiple devices – both private and public. These files are typically exported in different proprietary formats, making it difficult for law enforcement to collect and analyze the video data, as demonstrated by the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, where more than 120 FBI analysts reviewed in excess of 13,000 videos before discovering key evidence. The ONVIF Export File Format enables law enforcement as well as private users to more quickly and efficiently conduct forensic investigations using video of an incident from multiple sources.

These specifications together make it possible not only to integrate devices in multi-vendor video security system deployments in safe city environments but offer an effective common export file format that can streamline post-event investigations where authorities are trying to react as fast as possible.

As standards and industries collaborate even further and establish minimum interoperability standards together, the need for a multi-discipline physical security standard will become more urgent. ONVIF envisions that all physical security systems will eventually have the same interfaces for interoperability, and the organization is dedicated to facilitating the work of its members in developing such a multi-discipline standard.

About the author: Per Björkdahl is the Chair of the ONVIF Steering Committee. 

About the Author

Per Björkdahl

Per Björkdahl is Chairman of the Steering Committee of ONVIF. For more information, please visit