September 2, 2010 By Russell Nichols
With immediate access to aerial images, code enforcement officials in Mecklenburg County, N.C., can find out who's violating codes with a simple click.
But county officials say they're not using technology like Google Earth to snoop around randomly. According to Tim Taylor, a county code enforcement manager, they only take the eyes-in-the-sky route to verify complaints from residents.
"The majority of our complaints come in from neighbors complaining about somebody," he said. "We just use the technology to prove or disprove what's going on in a particular location."
The use of this technology by local governments, however, has put the argument of public use versus privacy rights under the microscope. Government officials claim anyone can use these tools, and aerial imaging helps detect violations and solve problems faster. For instance, in the UK, Islington uses Google Earth Enterprise as an extension to local government GIS to help fix boulevards and fight crime, according to a blog by Ed Parsons, Google's geospatial technologist. In Greece, officials started using Google Earth to hunt for undeclared swimming pools and collect the extra taxes.
The town of Riverhead, N.Y., took the same approach and used Google's detailed satellite images to identify 250 pools, collecting about $75,000 in fees from violators. But objections from privacy advocates flooded the Long Island town as critics claimed the high-tech method eroded privacy rights and evoked the "we're watching you" feel of Big Brother. The town has since decided to stop using the free satellite imaging service.
When a resident calls in with a code violation complaint in Mecklenburg County, local officials must prove the code violation exists. To gather evidence, code enforcement managers primarily use their own aerial photography tool, Polaris. This tool, Taylor said, has been around for more than 10 years. (Prior to that, they had to get information from the GIS department, which stored actual maps in paper form.) Polaris utilizes aerial photos taken as late as 2009, which include tax and owner information, parcel numbers and other data about a particular piece of property.
But sometimes, Taylor said, "Polaris may not give you all you need to see." At that point, he said, code enforcement can turn to Google Earth, which contains more recent images, and gives them a date range to work with to prove a case.
"Google Earth can show you some additional features that the aerial photo does not give you," Taylor said. "Especially if the Polaris photo is 2009 and Google Earth is 2010. We can confirm what the house looked like then versus what it looks like today."
Taylor calls Google Earth "another tool in the toolbox," and said the county has not had to deal with privacy concerns from residents.
"This is public information," he said. "And we don't sit at the computer and monitor what people are doing out there via satellite. We have more important things to do than that."