Local governments often tout technology as a way of making life easier for their residents, offering services such as electronic complaints, property database information, crime statistics, etc. Many of these services save the everyday citizen lots of money, reduce the carbon footprint related to travel, and help bring government into the amazing world of the digital age. Automation also helps save taxpayer dollars in regards to staffing, storage of physical records, time in research and others aspects of citizen services that used to require face to face interactions. While many of us marvel at these new and exciting methods of e-government, there are situations where your leaders count on your ignorance of technology and your familiarity with “the old ways” in order to make more money than they could ever do previously. Ignorance may be bliss, but it can be expensive as hell.
If you’ve ever had to pay for parking at a meter, you’ve no doubt encountered the situation where you’ve run out of change and scramble to find a miracle under the seat, or in the ashtray of your vehicle. The ancient sounds of quarters, dimes, and nickels falling into a meter, along with the familiar “zip” of the knob, is something current generations will probably never experience outside of a museum. In the past ten years, we’ve gone from very manual parking systems, meters with digital displays, vending style parking machines, to mobile device applications which take of everything necessary for you to park and get on with your business or beach day. However, much of the actual business process and transaction remains unchanged… you pay for the time you need to park, and if you under pay, you risk being issued an expensive citation. People have been accustomed to this method for decades and decades, and no one seems to question it… except me.
When ever one converts a business process to a digital format, there’s perhaps one rule you should always follow… you don’t re-create the same routine with a computer, you make it better, and you make it more efficient. You take the opportunity to look at the process holistically, and take advantage of the technology to do things that couldn’t be done before. That’s why it’s often referred to as a new “solution.” Otherwise you’re just wasting software to automate something that’s completely outdated, which doesn’t improve the process as much as it could be, or even not at all. It’s like if you made a program to create a digital sun dial, but didn’t include the option to set an alarm, have a calendar, or maybe even tell you audibly what time it was. I know this because I’ve been an information technology professional for over thirty years, and I know a thing or do about deploying new systems, solutions and processes. Yet our parking systems do exactly that, and are counting on your ignorance of technology and everyday citizens simply being used to the tradition of feeding a meter. You think it’s better because it’s on your phone and you don’t need physical coins, but what you don’t realize is that it could be modernized… but that would mean more money in your pocket, and less for those running the meters.
Yesterday I was parking in Miami-Beach and while using a phone based app, I tapped on my car’s license plate ID instead of that of my partner Eric’s car. I paid over ten dollars to park in a spot and then realized we were in his car, not mine. When I looked at the app, I noticed there wasn’t an option to change the vehicle I was using so I entered a customer service chat. Immediately a notice is displayed basically saying if you paid for parking and you made a mistake, you need to pay again. To add insult to injury, the representative on the live chat just validated what I just read. So parking last night ended up costing us twenty dollars for something that should have been half as much. But why didn’t the technology on my phone allow me to change the vehicle? It would certainly be a simple database update on active session, but then the city would lose out on some free cash. In essence, it’s the same as paying the wrong meter when you park, and Miami-Beach is counting on your accustomed feeling of permanency and featureless interactions when parking. They don’t want you to even think of the technological ability to fix such an error.
This becomes more apparent when you overpay for parking. In the old days, if you overpaid a meter, you paid it forward with sure delight as the next person parking discovers the meter paid, and their stay is free thanks to you. This tiny gesture surely had the ability to change your day for the better! However thanks to the digital age, if you paid for parking for thirty minutes, and you left after five, the city keeps the remaining funds and the next car starts from scratch. So why isn’t the system designed for you to end a parking session when you leave? Why should you pay for more time than you’re actually using the spot? Are you being penalized for not accurately timing the event accurately for which you parked for? Yup, you are. Of course people are so used to this kind of transaction, they don’t question it in the least. They are oblivious to what technology can offer them, and have been conditioned through the years to accept the loss. Meanwhile, parking operators are laughing all the way to the bank.
Probably the worse example of this kind of digital thievery occurs when you leave one spot, and drive to another location and park again. Now your mobile device displays two active parking sessions, when you’re only parked in one spot. What gives anyone the authority to bill you for something not being used? This is double dipping in the most literal of ways… you are being billed simply for thinking you needed to park somewhere longer than you needed to. Again, the population perfectly accepts this because they’re completely ignorant of the technological ability to convert the old process into a new and more efficient solution. A fool and their money are easily parted, so goes the famous saying… and it’s obviously true.
A parking system designed by me would have the option to create a bank of money within the parking application. You could put $20 in the bank per say, and then use it as needed… similar to the way electronic tolls are billed. When you use a spot, you would start the parking session, but when you left, you would end it. Sessions could be adjusted for time as they are now, but they could also be edited for a different vehicle in case you paid for the wrong one… or even to pay for a friend. This would inherently give you the option of transferring a current session to another spot. The entire point of metered parking is to pay for the spot, so who cares where it comes from, as long as the spot is payed for. This eliminates double dipping… “yeah okay” says the public official reading this. The city or parking company could still make lots of money on interest, holding onto all the money that’s just sitting there waiting to be used, but the consumer wouldn’t pay a single penny more than they had to. It’s a win win.
I had posted this idea in a community forum and I can’t tell how many persons scolded me for it. They were also thinking in terms of the past, completely dismissing technology, and accusing me of being irresponsible with my estimate of time. Seriously? That makes as much sense as denying someone state of the art cancer treatment because ten years ago it was considered a death sentence. If the technology can make something better, shouldn’t we hold our elected officials responsible for making it so? Why should they intentionally re-create the same process, just because citizens are used to it, and then reap the benefits of automation and efficiency? Shouldn’t the cost savings be passed onto the consumer? Apparently not.
I challenge you all to think of ways technology could obviously save you money, but it’s better for business and government to keep you familiar and accustomed to old ways of doing things because it makes them much more money. I’ll give you a head start… a bank charges you extra money for bouncing a check, and then transferring money from your savings account to cover it. You had the money there, it was available, however historically a person had to manually make the adjustment and that took time. Now it’s merely a line of code… an “if then” statement, completely automated and costs nothing. So why are we still be charged so much for the milliseconds it took for software to accomplish this? Think outside the box, people may hate you for it, but you’ll be a lot more the wiser… and possibly more frustrated than ever… like me.