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School board takes educated leap into IP

Five years ago, the York Region District School Board, embarked on a relationship with i3 International Inc. to refresh DVRs and cameras across many of the board’s more than 200 schools.

November 17, 2010  By Neil Sutton

Located north of Toronto, YRDSB is home to more than 100,000 students and 8,000 staff members. Protecting them is job one, says Mark Marchand, Associate Manager of Administrative Services.

The approach to implementing new technology has been incremental, he says. “Every year we expand the project out further, where we pick some schools that don’t have DVRs and put them in there. But, of course, funds are limited, so you can only do so many a year, but we’re steadily getting there.”

There are currently 109 York Region schools using i3 with 25 more on the horizon.

“At the start, it was us basically doing a demonstration with two other manufacturers on the merits of our products,” says i3 executive vice-president Vy Hoang. “At that time they were looking to upgrade their system and they had a hodge podge of units. They wanted to standardize on one box.”


Given the sheer number of locations to cover, York Region required an infrastructure that would provide constant updates on DVR status: uptime, how long they’ve been recording and who last accessed them.

“You sit there and you go, how do you know if a DVR is working properly?” says Marchand. “Well, we don’t sit here and monitor them. We don’t pay people to watch DVRs all day long. We’re working on a program where a DVR will tell us if it goes online.”

York Region is also investigating alternatives to pan-tilt-zoom cameras. A megapixel camera that could provide a 180 degree panoramic view without having to physically move the camera is ideal, says Marchand. The school board has invested in megapixel to some degree, he says, but in many cases, two static cameras set up in parallel can accomplish the same task and they tend to be lower maintenance than PTZs.

“In a lot of schools, we had PTZ cameras,” he says. “PTZs are wonderful if you have a security guard who’s sitting down, monitoring, moving the camera around, zooming in, zooming out. That’s not us.”

The problem with cameras that simply pan backwards and forwards is that they tend to miss incidents. If for example, a fight breaks out between two students, by the time the camera pans back to capture the incident, it might already be over. “The fight is done and you’ve got nothing,” he says.

Marchand emphasizes that cameras generally aren’t used for disciplinary purposes — they’re mainly a deterrent. “We’re kind of lucky in our region. We don’t have a lot of issues — they’re great schools.”

The 1,000-plus indoor cameras installed across YRDSB are set up in public areas like gymnasiums and hallways. There are approximately 530 more installed on the exterior of school buildings, which help to deter vandalism and break-ins.

York Region has experimented with technology like night vision, but has had better luck by tying cameras into lights by using motion detection.

“i3 has software capabilities to distinguish between humans and non-humans,” says Marchand. “We program it so that if a human comes within a certain distance of the wall, it’ll trigger the outside lights. The lights will turn on automatically so the cameras will actually be able to record an image.

“The same thing with the inside of the school. If someone gets into the school, the cameras will turn the interior lights on so we can start recording. The system is always recording but it dumps it if there’s nothing there. We’re test driving that to see how it works. So far it’s been fairly good.”

YRDSB is also testing out face-blurring technology to protect the privacy of students should footage of an incident ever be shown to parents or turned over to police.

“Because they’re a public entity, they have to be very conscious of people’s right to privacy,” says Huang. They’re doing everything they can to make sure the newer technologies will allow them to keep the school secure while maintaining privacy for the individual citizen that comes into their schools.”

York Region has embraced technology, and will almost inevitably move over to IP entirely given time, but Marchand says he’s not entirely convinced that IP is always the best option; analogue systems have their advantages.

“I think that’s just growing naturally. There’s all types of technology coming out and it changes quicker than you can learn about it. IP is great, but I also find that the older technology seems to have its finer points too. When you’re non IP, believe or not, I find the system runs a little bit better or it’s easier to maintain in some respects. There’s pros and cons to both.”

Huang says that when he started working with York Region five years ago, IP was just starting to gain in currency, but was still considered a relatively new technology. IP has grown in popularity over that time frame, but perhaps not as quickly as a lot of people think. The price gap between analogue and IP is starting to narrow, but there’s still enough of a disparity to give some customers pause for thought.

There’s been greater uptake in the U.S. school districts served by i3, says Huang, and often because of the way budgets are distributed across departments. In some cases, IP-based installs are partially shouldered by the IT department, not just security.

“A lot of Canadian schools don’t have that privilege where their IT department is going to take over and buy a $20,000 server. That budget still comes out of security. When you have that, Canadians are being a little bit more conservative,” he says.

“Unless you really have unlimited budget, I haven’t gone into a situation where the school says, ‘You know what? I don’t care what I have. Rip it all out and put in IP.’ It’s always been a conversation where it’s: ‘Look, this is this year’s budget. This is what we have. What can we do with it as we migrate over. Do we go with a hybrid? Do we go with analogue? Do we reuse some of our existing units? Do we go with IP in some schools?’”

Huang says it’s often easier for small school boards with a handful of locations to make a whole-hearted leap into IP because the start-up investment isn’t as high.

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