We’ve Created a Public Archive of NYC’s Surveillance Footage

written in collaboration with Willem

Holding the police accountable requires witnessing, recording and sharing footage of their actions. Inspired by Darnella Frazier, whose recording of George Floyd’s murder sparked a global movement, I am archiving NYC traffic camera footage with help from the NYC Mesh community to make it easier for the public to identify police misconduct.

If you experience or hear about a policing incident, you can use the archive to check the camera footage at the corresponding intersection and time.

NYC Alert

A Notify NYC text message alert and the corresponding DOT traffic camera footage showing police setting up barricades

We’ve watched as CNN journalists captured their own arrest on camera. We’ve seen military-grade weapons used against peaceful protestors thanks to the hundreds of people who filmed the June 1 Lafayette Square rally. The video of Martin Gugino getting pushed by police in Buffalo has been viewed more than 82 million times on Twitter, at the time of writing.

The NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) provides public access to live streams of its traffic cameras on its website but it does not make recorded data available. But if the government can access all of this footage to monitor citizens then we should have access to monitor the police.

Currently, to witness and document an incident using the DOT footage, you have to be watching the right camera at the right time and be ready to take a screenshot. The archive makes it possible to review footage after an event has taken place. By making this resource available to the public, we are providing another source of visual evidence.

How It Works (at the moment - see below to join the effort!)

The tool saves an image from each camera every time the feed updates (usually once every 1-30 seconds) and publishes them in easy-to-access bundles. We’re currently only able to archive feeds from Manhattan and Brooklyn, but we’ve reached out to the DOT to formally request access for the rest of New York City.

The NYC Mesh colocation facility allows us to plug a server directly into the internet backbone with low latency and high bandwidth. This allows the tool to pull over 200 GB of footage per day in real time, and make all that data available to whomever wants to access it. Hosting the server at a commercial colocation facility would be prohibitively expensive, but at Mesh, we’re able to do it because the rack space is available for community projects at a low cost.

How You Can Help

We need help to make the archive a more useful public resource. Please reach out at archive@nycmesh.net if you have experience and would like to help with:

  • Spreading the word: We want to let activists, journalists and other concerned citizens know about the tool.
  • Expanding to all cameras in all 5 boroughs: Do you have an “in” at the NYC DOT? Could you connect us to the right person to help us request access to formal data feeds for The Bronx, Queens and Staten Island and any cameras not listed on the website? This would help us increase how often we’re able to capture footage in Manhattan and Brooklyn as well.
  • Server upkeep: Do you have experience with shell scripting? Could you help maintain the servers?
  • Expanding to other cities: Does your city livestream public surveillance footage that we could scrape and add to the archive?
  • UI/UX design: How can we make the archive easier to navigate?
  • Machine learning / AI: Can we automatically detect police insignia to flag relevant footage?

Special thanks to Zach Giles for his ongoing technical guidance, and to the rest of the NYC Mesh community.