A recent project I worked on has received a bit of controversial press so I thought I would write about it from my perspective and the benefits it is seeking to provide.
As part of a joint venture between the soon-to-be-merged local councils of Mosman and North Sydney, a new, innovative program is being initiated for pet owners. Essentially, as well as micro-chipping, in compliance with the NSW Companion Animals Act, animal owners will also be required to add a ‘pet cam’ to the collar of their animals. All dogs and cats are already required to have a collar with contact information on, so the new requirement is not onerous.
The councils will provide the ‘eyenimal’ day/night vision cameras with the cost being covered by the usual council registration fees. The council recoups the reduced revenue through the flow-on benefits of the system (see below).
Behind The Scenes
The councils are working directly with Microsoft to deliver the infrastructure for the system.
The Pet Reconnaissance And Note Keeping System starts with the camera. For PC owners, a .Net app, downloadable from the council’s web site, will activate when the camera is plugged in via a USB port, charging the device and uploading the captured footage to Microsoft Azure storage automatically. For Apple and Android owners, there will be apps in the respective stores coming in the next six months or so.
It will be the pet owner’s responsibility to regularly charge the device, during which time it is expected the pet is confined to the house e.g. while the animal is sleeping. Strict fines will be imposed for animals caught ‘in the wild’ without their pet-cam attached.
From the Azure storage, the councils will access the videos via Dynamics CRM, also allowing additional data to be associated to the videos e.g. owner details, other pets in residence, connections with other pets. Using the marketing functionality of Dynamics CRM, councils will be able to target residents for things like neutering campaigns, tick awareness or advertisement for council-run pet-related activities, based on the information they gather.
The case management module of Dynamics CRM will be used for capture pet-related complaints and enquiries. For example, a resident may wish to complain about dog mess being left in the street by an owner. This complaint will be managed (pet-aged) through CRM and, with the footage, the perpetrator found and the owners fined. A similar system has been set up in the UK with immediate benefit.
Through a SharePoint Online portal (with the working title of SharePoint Pet-Owners Online Footage), pet owners will also be able to access their videos and see where their furry loved ones have gone. Social links will also be available, allowing owners to share footage on sites such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
Obviously, there is the ability to better monitor regulation compliance e.g. cleaning up dog mess, but there are a multitude of other benefits expect to flow from the project.
Improved Residence Resource Usage
Through the pet cams, the councils will be able to review residence resource usage. Mosman residents have one of the largest carbon footprints in the world and, it is believed through reviewing residence HVAC usage via the pet-cams, targeted marketing campaigns can be employed to improve residents’ ecological impact.
About one quarter of Australian households have a cat which makes for a lot of eyes and ears on the streets of the lower north shore of Sydney. Like the extensive use of CCTV cameras in London, the day/night cameras will provide 24-7 footage of the mean streets of North Sydney and Mosman.
Native Animal Census and Preservation
Cats on night-time explorations often explore bushland wildlife officers struggle to access. As well as monitoring native kills and fining owners, the night cameras will provide invaluable information on the native populations in the council areas.
Many of Australia’s native animals are nocturnal meaning native census counts are often done via traps. The pet-cam provides an alternative which leaves the native animals undisturbed.
The ‘Mosman latte quoll’, a localised variant of the Eastern Quoll, named after its coffee-coloured fur, has not had a confirmed sighting in the area for a number of decades but anecdotal sightings still occur in the Sydney Harbour National Park’ and it is hoped the pet-cams will finally provide the evidence needed to confirm ‘lattes’ are thriving in the Mosman area.
Pet Owner Benefits
As well as the benefit of seeing where their loved ones go each day, it is envisioned the new scheme will provide other benefits to the community.
With many of the lower north shore’s animals being expensive pure breeds, unplanned offspring can be a significant source of revenue, if heritage can be established. The pet-cams provide a way to begin the process of establishing paternity. Combined with the planned facial-recognition social innovations to be rolled out later (see below), this could prove to be a significant win for female cat owners in the area.
For housebound pets, through the pet-cam, owners can see what has been happening at home, providing security and comfort.
A number of civil rights groups have written articles to local papers, such as the Mosman Daily and North Shore Times, complaining about the new technology, suggesting the benefits of the system are vastly outweighed by the privacy costs. Obviously the councils disagree and see little difference between this system and CCTV surveillance systems, often employed in public areas.
There have also been questions raised about whether this is a ‘revenue-raising’ activity for the councils but, again, while improved infringement management will be a likely result of the system, this will mainly offset the cost of the program and the councils do not believe there will be a significant revenue increase overall.
Innovations to Come
The initial pet-cam rollout is the beginning of a larger pet management project for the councils. Innovations are being rolled out, as part of the project, over the next few years.
Pet Social Networking and Facial Recognition
The pet-cams offer an insight into the social worlds of our pets like never before; we can see who our pets associate with while away from home. While animal facial recognition technology is still in its infancy, once this becomes more mainstream, the plan is to link it into the system to make identifying social interactions simpler. Animals will be identified, with contact information made available via the pet owner’s portal.
While human facial recognition is available in the system as part of the initial rollout, linking to photo identification databases held by the councils, this information, for privacy reasons, will not be made available via the pet owner’s portal.
Direct Wireless Transmission and Solar/Kinetic Recharging
The next generation of the units is already being planned and one possible inclusion is wireless data transmission. This will free up the on-board storage and allow real-time access to pet movements. USB docking will still be needed for charging, although solar recharging/kinetic recharging (recharging via the motion of the animal) is being investigated.
Pet Communication and GPS
Two other possible inclusions are a mobile SIM and GPS. This provides the ability for owners to track the location of their pet and to communicate with them. While conversation is, of course, not possible, if the owner feels the pet is in an undesirable location (or if they will soon be home from work and want to greet their furry companion), they can initiate a call to the animal and coax it home. Similarly, like GPS child tracking devices, an invisible boundary can be established for the device and, if the animal goes outside of this boundary (or to a forbidden location) an SMS can be automatically sent to the owner, notifying them of the violation. In this way, the GPS technology also allows effective enforcement of the council’s “leash free zones”.
While the project is unlikely to save lives on a daily basis, I enjoyed the project because it is great seeing local government employing technology for the benefit of its residents. I see the potential benefits of the scheme and trust the councils not to misuse the information they will gather.
For an FAQ on the project and further information, the councils have set up a temporary landing page here which covers the main goals of the project and their vision for it.
Have a great April Fools Day.