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Aerial photos could track home projects
County mulls deal with high-tech firm

THE FLINT JOURNAL| March 20, 2005
By Marjory Raymer

To learn more about Pictometry Visual Intelligence, check out the company's Web page at www.pictometry.com. Registered users also can see examples of detailed pictures and limits on photo resolution under the Frequently Asked Questions link.

New technology soon could let government officials look right into your back yard to see your new deck - and then check whether you filed the proper permits.

Genesee County officials are considering using Pictometry Visual Intelligence, a new, ultra-detailed data and aerial photograph system that can show a picture from up to 12 different angles and lets users combine the pictures with all sorts of material - even a tool to measure how big that deck is.

"What we tell our customers is, with this system you can see everywhere, measure anything and plan everything that you want to plan," said Dante Pennacchia, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Pictometry International Corp.

The program would allow firefighters to see how tall buildings are, SWAT teams to plan escape routes and 911 operators to see exactly where people in need are, Pennacchia said.

The Pictometry system would cost an estimated $250,000, with Genesee County and local municipalities picking up the tab.

But some taxpayers may not be thrilled by the Big Brother aspects of the system and the prospect of government peering too closely into their space.

Pat McDougall, 53, of Flint, whose taxes keep going up because assessors find improvements to his property, said he doesn't like the idea.

"I just personally think it's very intrusive," McDougall said. "What if your daughter is laying out in the back yard sunning herself?"

Gregory Gibbs, chairman of the Greater Flint chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said courts have ruled that aerial photographs are not an invasion of privacy, but he worries how far government will push the technology.

"The back yard - that is a special place. It's an extension of the home for a lot of people," Gibbs said. "From (the ACLU's) standpoint, we are very concerned about the use of technology that invades the privacy of the average citizen. We watch it very closely."

Company and local officials said protecting personal privacy should not be a concern for residents.

Only government entities are supposed to have access to the photos, and the pictures are taken only every two years, so it's not like the government can look and see what's happening in your back yard at any given moment, said Robert Carra, director of geographic information systems for the county, who is heading a committee considering the project.

And, Pennacchia said, it's important to realize that the system's zoom capabilities are limited because the pictures become blurry squares called pixels under high magnification. Faces and license plates are never distinguishable using the software, Pennacchia said.

"We've chosen just the right balance between privacy and being able to see things on buildings," he said.

As for that deck scenario, though, it's real life.

Craig Witmer, district manager for Pictometry out of Indianapolis, last week showed a group of township officials how the detailed images could show line striping on roads, home plate on baseball fields and backyard decks.

As a first-time homeowner, Witmer said, he didn't realize he needed a permit for a deck on his house and got caught by county officials using his own software.

Aerial photography including pictures of back yards across the county is nothing new. Genesee County, like most counties, has long used aerial photographs in planning offices.

Traditionally, though, the photographs are taken looking straight down, which show outlines of buildings. Taken from a higher altitude, the photos also have less detail.

Pictometry takes pictures at an angle from multiple cameras mounted on the bottoms of planes, and at two altitudes to give perspective.

It also combines the pictures with other data so users can pick out addresses or coordinates, see property lines, calculate distances and areas and even measure the slope of hills.

"This is something brand new for us and fairly new in the industry," said Bob Slattery, director of information systems and planning for the Genesee County Road Commission. "It's not just the newness that's cool about it. It's the uses."

The federal government, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and 125 counties nationwide already use Pictometry, a 4-year-old system.

Genesee County could be the first in Michigan to employ the system, although Jackson County also is considering it.

Genesee County officials are still in the early stages of considering Pictometry. The earliest the system could go into effect is probably this fall, Carra said.

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