Tech Success: Clear picture
Software helps Maryland department manage photo database
Data is more than numbers and words. Increasingly, government agencies rely on digital images to do day-to-day tasks.
Images play a major role in the work done by engineers at the Maryland State Highway Administration. The problem was that the time it was taking to navigate through photos was becoming a productivity issue, said Michael Stewart, an SHA computer information support specialist.
Engineers wanted an application that was fast and made organization easy.
To streamline photo-handling for them, highway officials turned to ACD Systems International Inc. of Victoria, Canada, and its ACDSee software, used to view, browse and manage digital images.
"The savings in the engineers' time versus the cost of the software is probably a factor of 10," Stewart said.
"It's so much faster than anything else we've used, it makes things much easier for the engineers who want to spend their time doing engineering, not organizing files."
Stewart works in SHA's hydraulics division, which manages storm water runoff on Maryland's roads. Its projects focus on the roads' drainage infrastructure, such as storm drains and curbs.
"If a project is going to get started, our engineers go out in the field and take photos of the site to capture what the conditions are," Stewart said. "That way, they have something to refer to when they get back to the office. Site photos are more useful than just an abstract aerial photo or something like that."
Throughout the course of a project, more photos are taken to document progress. With multiple projects of various sizes going on at the same time, the number of images in engineers' project folders adds up fast.
The images help the engineers do their jobs, but viewing and managing the growing catalog of images became increasingly more time consuming.
Before installing ACDSee, native Windows applications such as Paint were used to view images. The applications were slow and didn't have search or organization tools. Using ACDSee's tools as a viewer has proven much faster than anything else highway officials have used.
Although speed is important, it's only one of the software's capabilities, said Sheldon Croden, an ACD spokesman. Being able to batch re-named photos, for example, speeds finding images later.
"Instead of having the default name from the camera, like DC01002, all the images can be renamed for a particular project at once," Croden said.
At the Maryland SHA, it's important for engineers to be able to quickly find the right image when assessing a problem or writing a report. They need to be able to quickly refer to a picture and determine if it supports their views.
"They might have taken 30 or 40 pictures, and they want to be able to review and look at all of those, and pick the ones that are best suited to illustrate the point they're trying to make," Stewart said.
One way the software helps engineers find the right image is it lets users easily associate data, such as where a photo was taken, with a batch of photos at once. It also includes metadata such as date, time and camera shutter speed. Any of that data can be used as criteria for a search. If an engineer is writing a report about how a road fared during a heavy rainstorm, he can search for the best image using the date and time of the storm.
"Being able to have a large inventory of photos, without having to use a lot of effort to create metadata for each photo -- that helps us," Stewart said. "Engineers can be as organized or disorganized as they want to be. It gives them all the flexibility to do whatever they want to do."
The highway administration runs ACDSee on Windows PCs. A Macintosh version works in a terminal services environment.
Law enforcement agencies, such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, have found the software effective at managing cases, Croden said.
"Typically, an officer takes photos at a crime scene, say on a Nikon camera," Croden said. "The software can read the Nikon raw image files. It supports all major camera manufacturers' raw formats."
Once the images are saved on the police department's network, officers categorize the images. By selecting all the images, officers can add the author name and add notes to a specific image or batch of images.
"Several photos may be marked, 'blood found on the right shoe,' " Croden said.
A contact sheet of several thumbnail images can be made, so photos and the associated data may be examined while preparing a case for court.
If necessary, metadata about each photo is also saved and searchable, such as shutter speed and type of camera.
An outside systems integrator was not involved in the Maryland SHA installation, but ACD sometimes does work with integrators on projects. Lockheed Martin Corp., for example, used ACDSee as part of the NASA Space Shuttle project, Croden said.
ACDSee makes images available for high-end applications such as Pro/Engineering and AutoCAD.
For the Maryland State Highway Administration, the speed of the software is why engineers there use it every day.
"You save money in the long run by working quickly," Stewart said.
If you have an innovative solution that you recently installed in a government agency, contact Staff Writer Doug Beizer at firstname.lastname@example.org.