San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit police force takes advantage of mapping technology to better share information.

by / October 4, 2004
At first glance, the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system wouldn't seem a likely candidate for a GIS makeover. It isn't a government jurisdiction in the usual sense, nor does it have most of the traditional responsibilities that make GIS useful to public officials.

BART's transit operations cross four counties, go to 26 cities and service 43 stations along 104 miles of track. This includes 30 miles through subways and tunnels (not including the 3.6-mile Transbay Tube and the 3.5-mile Berkeley Hills tunnel), as well as 23 miles of aerial track. On weekdays, BART moves approximately 300,000 people per day.

BART also maintains its own police force composed of fully sworn peace officers, who have the same training and powers of arrest as California's city police officers and county sheriffs' deputies. Its officers and detectives investigate all reported crimes occurring on BART property, including auto burglaries and thefts, robberies, assaults, and homicides.

Because BART covers a lot of ground that crosses the boundaries of several cities and counties, its police force works with a range of public safety agencies. Sharing information with those agencies and between BART employees can involve any number of scenarios at any number of locations, something BART struggled with in the past.

Building GIS Capabilities
Several years ago, BART police set out to upgrade existing technologies, many of which were bought in the 1970s when the transit system began. As part of the upgrade effort, BART police hired Carissa Goldner, who previously initiated a GIS project at the California Department of Justice.

"I came with a background of using MapInfo and ESRI," said Goldner, CAD/RMS administrator at the BART police department. "When I got here at BART, I immediately realized it didn't have anything like that. Moreover, they didn't actually see any use for GIS software."

Goldner, however, learned of an e-government grant offered at the time by MapInfo and applied on behalf of the BART police. Although MapInfo was flooded with applications, BART got the grant.

"BART is somewhat of an interesting entity in that it is spread out over a very large area, but as a series of thin lines," said Sabby Nayar, MapInfo's strategic industry manager for government and education. "It is not like a municipality that might have a big area to cover in terms of square miles. However, in terms of linear miles, BART is enormous. It is actually a pretty interesting and complex spatial situation. There are a lot of people they need to share information with, including other law enforcement agencies."

The grant provided BART police with MapInfo Professional -- a GIS tool for creating and editing data sets, doing detailed analysis, and importing and exporting data. The grant also included Discovery, which allows publishing of map layers created with MapInfo Professional through the Internet or an intranet.

With a standard browser, users can view maps, zoom in and out, click on points to get information, turn layers on and off, and examine complex data through a geospatial interface.

This proved important because, along with the GIS project, BART police also launched an intranet for officers as a means of sharing information.

"GIS is the second technology our officers now have that wasn't here when we started," said Goldner. "They are a little bit shell-shocked and bewildered. But at the same time, they are definitely excited because they see the future uses. The more our staff are using GIS, the more valuable it becomes."

Bringing GIS In
Before implementing GIS, the BART police department evaluated its current technologies to determine what they offered, look for holes and determine how best to use GIS for information consolidation, management and dissemination.

Rail data was the primary priority, as there were no proper maps for the whole system, Goldner said. As BART grew over the years, new stations were added and lines were extended. Much of this information existed only in schematic form because no one in the engineering department knew mapping. Many parts of the rail line had to be drawn onto existing maps.

Once the rail data was set, BART police identified and geo-coded the stations. Property borders were also added, so users can click on any station or parking lot to get a schematic of the exact property layout, including administrative buildings.

"As a police department, we have to respond to situations in all those locations, so we needed to know what they look like," she said.

Because officers typically use nearby freeways to get from station to station, they added a link to the GIS that will take officers to the highway patrol dispatch Web site containing traffic incident reports. If there are major incidents, dispatchers can use the routing software included in the grant package to find alternate routes.

This is particularly useful for new officers who might be unfamiliar with an area's main streets. Since BART rotates officers to different regions every six months, this can make a big difference.

Next they added the access points BART police officers use to get onto the trackway (which are inaccessible to the public), and emergency exits where officers get in and passengers get out. Digital images of the exits were included because they are often difficult to find.

"If you are between two stations, your only instruction might be to look for a gray door," Goldner said. "Well, there are a lot of gray doors, so we took digital images of the emergency exits and hot linked those to the position as well so officers could see instantly what the actual structure looks like."

Before installing the GIS, BART police dispatchers found much of this information in a file cabinet full of binders. Dispatch personnel had to know what binder to go to, what section of the binder and which page.

The process was time-consuming, said Goldner. "Now we've given them instant access to the information. Dispatch absolutely loves the application. It means they don't have to get up, take off their headsets, go to the filing cabinet, pull out a binder, flip through a bunch of pages, and then put it all back."

Expanding Uses
BART police continue extending the GIS's uses, recently adding track safety information, Goldner said.

By clicking on the mile post markers every tenth of a mile on the track, users can select an area and know how fast trains are going, how much clearance someone on the track way has when a train comes through a tunnel, what kind of approval employees need before going somewhere on the track and whom to contact for that approval.

"Before we were virtually requiring our staff to memorize this information," Goldner said. "Adding that to the GIS is really helping us cut down on the amount of memorization our staff is having to do in training. This allows us to get people out into the field more quickly and still be fully prepared."

While staff still has to memorize this safety information in case the GIS goes down, it also helps ensure that in an emergency, BART employees won't forget such critical information under stress.

This information is available to anyone with access to the GIS, which currently is only BART police employees. There are plans, however, to make it electronically available to other area police and EMS agencies. In a serious emergency, non-BART EMS responders might need to go onto the track way alone and would need access to this safety information.

Other BART departments are also showing interest and seeing new possibilities.

"Our engineering department is considering it for radio interoperability analysis, which for the police department is a critical problem," said Goldner. "Just like any radio transmission, we have dead spots.

"Engineering wants to plot the location of the satellites, the location of the dead space, plot the radio waves, and find out what they can turn up, turn down and move to sort out critical problems," she said. "That's not really a use we had in mind when we applied for the grant. It's not even our department doing the analysis, but we can benefit by it."
Blake Harris Contributing Editor