Since last weekend, employees of an aerial image company called Pictometry International Corporation, from Rochester, NY, have been scrambling and working overtime to process raw image data of the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy. Engineers and processors are using the company’s special software to stitch together slivers of pictures of the devastation that the company’s special cameras shot from planes. The company has been contracted to fly over New York City and New Jersey counties to help assess the devastation due to Hurricane Sandy and help determine where to send crews out to rebuild. So an upstate team has been matching the strips and balancing their resolution and colors so that government agencies, first responders, utilities, and insurance companies can use the information as soon as possible for the ongoing recover efforts.
"We wanted to make sure the disaster library was processed within days and ready for customers," says Pictometry’s CEO Rick Hurwitz. "It’s been a War Room approach across our organization."
When Governor Cuomo allowed claims to be opened by homeowners taking pictures of damage, that created an exposure for insurance companies, says Hurwitz. Usually a claims adjuster needs to get to the site and assess it before the homeowner can start remediating. "By having this imagery, there is an immediate time stamp and context to what’s going on," Hurwitz says.
But the company was hampered by the nature of the storm. Unlike many raging hurricanes that also have an eye of calm, Sandy roared up the East Coast and was followed by continuous rain and clouds for several days afterwards. On November 5th and 6th, during a two-day respite before the subsequent nor’easter, Pictometry flew its planes and shot some images. But pilots had to wait until Friday, November 8, through the following weekend to capture the bulk of the data.
So far, the company has collected more than 160,000 Sandy-related, data-rich images––totaling 1.2 terabytes––of before-and-after comparisons of property damage that customers can review from their desktops, tablets, and other mobile devices. Pictometry is asking a one-time, discounted fee from its normal subscription pricing to make the data accessible because it wants to be as helpful as it can and deploy as fully as possible during this disaster, says Hurwitz. Customers can view the data from a website called Pictometry Connect, which lets them see it from different angles, take measurements, and overlay their own maps, to, in this case, put it in the context of restoration activities.
A little over a decade ago, Pictometry pioneered oblique image capture, a technology that creates high-resolution images showing the roofs and partial sides of buildings, street signs, and fire hydrants, for example. The method is a subset of photogrammetry, the science of making measurements from photographs. The company flies its planes low along striped paths, like a zamboni, a machine that smoothes and cleans skating rink ice one lane at a time, or like a lawn mower cutting grass in rows. Rather than just shoot from a bird’s-eye point of view, Pictometry collects images shot at 45-degree angles from north, south, east, and west. (In contrast, NOAA shoots straight-down, or orthogonal images, which show only rooftops.)
Because these five dimensions reveal the sides of buildings, assessors can identify the direction of the damage. "If you just look at a rooftop, you can’t know if it caved in or is leaning to the left or right––where the source of the damage might be and what areas of risk might be impacted," explains Hurwitz. "Not all of Pictometry’s images are created equal, though," says Hurwitz. If there is sun glare on a building, the system recalibrates and tells the pilot in real time to go back over a particular flight line.
A primary electric utility is using the organization’s images for restoration in Westchester County, and a telecommunications giant is tapping the images to rebuild its infrastructure. Major insurance carriers are overlaying policy and storm data on parcel maps to speed claims reviews.
Every year, 8 million roofs are damaged due to weather or regular wear and tear, a $320 million market. Pictometry has been amassing its database of 200 million images—over 2 petabytes of data––since it was founded in 2000. Ordinarily, the company licenses its software and images, taken by its fleet of 70 planes. Law enforcement, Homeland Security, firefighters, other emergency responders, insurance adjusters, and county assessors use the data. Government clients use it to assess public safety in 40% of U.S. counties. Other clients include 400 911 call centers, and the states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and West Virginia.
Oblique aerial imagery is the brainchild of Steve Schultz, Pictometry’s CTO, who invented it while a Rochester Institute of Technology graduate student. The company was formed with financing from angel Bill Ryan, a local real estate developer and trustee of the University of Rochester Medical School. Then Blase Thomas Golisano, founder of Paychex, financed it. Hurwitz, 48, became CEO in 2010. A year ago the company got money from multimillion-dollar money manager Spectrum Equity of Boston.
The 320-employee company had $80 million in revenues last year, and before Hurricane Sandy it forecast $90 million this year. Asked whether Sandy changed all that, Hurwitz demurs. "I’m proud of way employees at Pictometry have reacted in such a collaborative and high-energy manner to assist in time of need," says Hurwitz.
Ordinarily this is the company’s busiest time of year irrespective of a hurricane because leaves have fallen and there’s no snow on the ground. "That’s when we capture imagery so you can see structures on the Earth best. Everybody’s fully engaged in normal activities. In the midst of that, we came together and reacted very fully to do great things for our clients."