Note: There’s an intro, the DDA response, and Fred’s response in this article. Jump to the end to read Fred’s response.
A few months back, we posted a nice little article on using Asterisk to get Parking Space Availability from Ann Arbor garages. The response from the VoIP community was fantastic! We received great comments and feedback from people like Jason Goecke, Dug Song, Dave Michels, Evan Cooke, and more! People not only responded, they even showed different ways of providing access to this information. And everyone shared their work in an open forum — truly a great example of open source coding inspiring innovation (albeit with Parking Spaces).
Even better was the local response in Ann Arbor. Edward Vielmetti and Fred Posner were interviewed in the local papers, appeared on a radio show, and even rode the teeter totter. Everyone loved the idea of being able to check on parking space availability… everyone except for the DDA (insert scary music).
The DDA (Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority), funded by tax dollars, “provides a diversity of transportation and parking options to meet downtown’s [Ann Arbor’s] ever-changing needs.” The DDA does not like us making information of parking spaces available to the public via phone. Instead, the DDA wants to control this information. Seriously, they want to control parking space availability information.
Tyler Erickson helped Edward Vielmetti and Fred make this project even more fascinating by tracking parking space availability over time. The plan was to provide predictability of availability. For example, “We’re sorry, the lot at 4th and Washington is currently filled, we predict the parking lot will be available in 7 minutes. Press 1 to be notified…”
Wouldn’t that be neat? We thought so… The DDA’s response was to block Tyler’s access. Of course, since it was using Google Apps, it blocked Google, but that’s another story. We inquired as to why this blockage occurred and… well enter Susan Pollay. Susan Pollay is Executive Director of the DDA. She told us (and remember, this is a tax funded organization):
Hi all. Over the last day or so I have talked about your project with a few DDA members and what arose from these conversations was a shared concern that because the project was not an initiative created by/run by the DDA there are no controls in place for this at present. For instance, there is no DDA policy about how to allow /or even if it should allow an outside group to use the DDA’s parking data for a private enterprise. There is a concern about how unsecure/secure the DDA website is made when sharing this data. And finally, a concern that if the project had value to parking patrons, that the DDA itself should consider providing this service as an extension of what it is already doing on-line.
Interesting — but the story doesn’t stop there. Due to real-life concerns of all of us, we kind of let this project move to the back burner. But then, two days ago Edward Vielmetti noticed the DDA website was no longer publishing real-time parking information. The response from Susan Polly follows:
From: Susan Pollay
Subject: RE: DDA real time parking data via web is not working // was Fwd: parking app busted again
Date: March 12, 2009 11:36:56 AM GMT-04:00
To: Sabra Briere, Edward Vielmetti
Cc: Margie Teall, Christopher TaylorC, Carsten Hohnke, Fred Posner, Tyler Erickson
Many thanks for this and other emails. The DDA became aware of Mr. Vielmetti’s project after reading about it in the press. Immediately a number of concerns were expressed including 1) no permission from the DDA was granted before this project got underway, 2) this project hopes to sell this software to other communities and thereby make a profit and is using DDA-generated information to accomplish this, 3) the DDA has no control over what is done with this information yet this information is attributed to the DDA, 4) persons interested in finding out about parking structure vacancies must make a toll-call out of state.
The DDA Operations Committee met and discussed these concerns. Their resolve was to provide information by phone to interested members of the public using real human beings answering phones at the Republic Parking office.
There are several benefits to the public with this arrangement. 1) Republic Parking staff members can provide the follow up information that an automated system can’t. e.g. You call to find out if there are vacancies at 4th & Washington â and if there are no vacancies or very few, Republic Parking staff can suggest a nearby convenient alternative parking location. They can give directions to the parking structure. They can provide information like yes, they do take credit cards. The automated system only tells you there are 0 spaces available. 2) Republic Parking staff members can keep track of how many people are calling, what structures they call about most often, the follow up questions, etc. This way if we ever decide to acquire an automated phone system we know how to prioritize and provide the information most sought after by patrons. The DDA would have retrieved none of this information from Mr. Vielmetti. And finally 3) a call to Republic Parking is not a toll call. It is a local office, staffed 24 hours a day, 6 days a week (Sundays all facilities are open and unlikely there are vacancy concerns).
Thanks again for contacting me. I hope to be helpful, so please let me know if I can answer any additional questions about this…
Fred’s response follows:
From: Fred Posner
Subject: Re: DDA real time parking data via web is not working // was Fwd: parking app busted again
Date: March 12, 2009 4:13:08 PM GMT-04:00
To: Susan Pollay
First, my apologies to Tyler and Carsten. They both wrote exceptional, professionally toned replies. I, however, am so appalled at this email, that I must speak directly to the points mentioned.
Susan, the DDA is funded by tax dollars and parking fees. Perhaps you have forgotten that public money is used to fund the DDA’s mission to serve the public? Allow me to introduce you to the concepts of open government and “public domain.” I don’t want to waste everyone’s time here, but please read up on these concepts so we can be on the same page.
Lets take your first point:
“No permission from the DDA was granted before this project got underway”
What permission should we have gotten? The DDA publishes parking space availability on the internet and on big, bright signs attached on garages. Do you believe that this is classified information that should be controlled by the government? If I asked someone if they knew how many spaces were available, should they say to me “I’m sorry Fred, I don’t have specific permission from the DDA to release that information.” Should people who release this information be considered enemies of the state and locked in Guantanamo Bay?
The bottom line here is that to horde this information is ridiculous. Let’s forget the tax/government/information aspect for a second. Even if this were private parking, I could never imagine an organization that would say… “Hey, I don’t want people to know that I have spaces available. They might come give money to park here.” An example of this is movie theaters. Movie theaters regularly welcome people announcing availability of shows and times. Why? Because they want to fill the seats. And if the seats are full, they want to let people know so they will plan to come back at a time when there is availability. With this in mind, there are many, many private companies that assist movie theaters with publishing this information on websites and phones.
This translates well to Ann Arbor Parking. I’m sure the citizens that you serve would like access to information. I’m also certain that the businesses would like people to know that parking is available. And, I’m certain they want a lot of access to that information. After all, no one suffers from having too much access to the same information. But the DDA response was completely the opposite. You actively stopped us from getting this information by blocking IP’s (such as google application server) and changing the format of the information.
In regards to needing your permission, I say simply, “You’re wrong. Either the information is public information on the public internet and public signs, or it’s private information that should be properly secured. Your idea that this public information must be secured is wrong. The idea is wrong, the approach is wrong, and the underlying ideology is wrong.”
Let’s look at point number 2:
“this project hopes to sell this software to other communities and thereby make a profit and is using DDA-generated information to accomplish this”
Wrong. Simply wrong. And your saying this is borderline libelous. Ed, Tyler, and I did this project to provide information. No money was thought of, and as a matter of fact, it cost me money to provide phone service for the beta project. Not only did we do this work for FREE, we also published the work, the source, and the methods online. We published the code we wrote and entered it into the public domain.
You know what happened when we did this? Others wrote similar code and also published it online. A discussion of open sharing of information took place with some very big names in the VoIP (voice over Internet) industry. We all shared code and provided public information to our work. Sadly, private companies and individuals are willing to share information, but the public DDA is not… that seems backwards, no?
Take a look at the post written on VoIP Tech Chat and the discussion that followed.
Point number 3:
“the DDA has no control over what is done with this information yet this information is attributed to the DDA”
Ok. When I was in third grade I had to write a report where I researched information and cited my sources. I attributed the information I learned and gave credit to the source so that others could also get that same information. This “marvel” concept of citing sources is still used today.
I must ask, what control of this information is needed? “My goodness, it’s crazy. I can’t believe it… with this parking space availability information… I can unlock the secret to who killed Kennedy!!!! Eureka!”
Sarcasm aside, the thought of government controlling information means the end of freedom. Information is for people and there’s a reason why people need access to information. If you have thoughts of controlling information, please leave government. Also, citing the source of information is not a problem, it’s actually proper, responsible, and good practice.
Point number 4:
“persons interested in finding out about parking structure vacancies must make a toll-call out of state.”
Wrong. At one point, I had this project linked to a 212 number. Why? Because I could support unlimited callers at that number. I did this at a cost of 1.5 cents per minute from my pocket. It took me two weeks, but we received a local Ann Arbor number capable of having more than 2 simultaneous calls. So for a brief 10 day period, you needed to dial 212. Then you could dial 734. We released this information online, over the radio, and to newspapers… So basically, since January 20th, you’re wrong (and we really didn’t make this live until January 10th).
But let’s take this a step further… and say “So what?” Right now the DDA releases this information only online at at the garage. If people want to make this available via SMS, Phone, Twitter, Facebook, Smoke Signal, Tea Leaves, or whatever communicative method one can imagine, it’s simply another way to access the same information. After all, no one suffers from having too much access to the same information.
So, not only is there a local number, it shouldn’t matter if there wasn’t. I truly see implementing a Detroit number, maybe Toledo, Grand Rapids… and more. Could you imagine the possibility of people from another area calling a local number (for them) to visit Ann Arbor? I can… and wow, that would be great.
Benefit number 1:
“Republic Parking staff members can provide the follow up information that an automated system cant. e.g. You call to find out if there are vacancies at 4th & Washington and if there are no vacancies or very few, Republic Parking staff can suggest a nearby convenient alternative parking location. They can give directions to the parking structure. They can provide information like yes, they do take credit cards. The automated system only tells you there are 0 spaces available”
Our system not only can do all this, it can do more. Our system can speak many languages. Our system won’t call in sick. Our system doesn’t have attitude, ever. And here’s the best part… Our system doesn’t only say there are “0″ spaces available. Our system actually calls you back when spots are available. Our system will also call you back when there are no more spots available. Are you going to have Republic Parking do that? Our system can give instructions, make recommendations, provide hours, and do much more than a staffed person and it costs you… nothing. No benefits, no salary, no cost, and yet more service.
Benefit number 2:
“Republic Parking staff members can keep track of how many people are calling, what structures they call about most often, the follow up questions, etc. This way if we ever decide to acquire an automated phone system we know how to prioritize and provide the information most sought after by patrons. The DDA would have retrieved none of this information from Mr. Vielmetti.”
We keep track of this information. Any time you want it, all you have to do is ask. Unlike the DDA, Mr. Vielmetti, Mr. Posner, and Mr. Erickson have demonstrated an ability and willingness to share information.
Final Benefit number 3:
“a call to Republic Parking is not a toll call. It is a local office, staffed 24 hours a day, 6 days a week (Sundays all facilities are open and unlikely there are vacancy concerns).”
A call to Republic Parking can be a toll call for many of the users who travel from out of town or are students here in Ann Arbor but I already addressed that above. Our system is a local call to Ann Arbor right now which you imply otherwise. Also, our system is open 24/7 and yes, you do have some availability problems on Sunday… well at least we could see that when you weren’t blocking access to the information.
Sometimes it helps to have other people look at information, this way we can assist you when you make incorrect statements. Your statement is a PERFECT illustration of why open access to information is needed. Open access to information corrects statements that interpret information incorrectly.
Right now I wear two hats. I’m both a Florida Resident and am renting in Pittsfield Township. I also own a small business. After watching these Jeff Daniels’ commercials promoting the benefits of doing business in Michigan, I was very seriously considering moving my business from Florida to Michigan. However, dealing with the DDA has really opened my eyes.
You see, I’ve worked for the government. And say what you want about Florida, we take public access to government very seriously in the Sunshine state. We have what is called the Sunshine Law that provides both criminal and civil penalties when public access is restricted. It’s a great law, and perhaps needed here as well. You see, I believe, as many others do, that in a government of the people and by the people, that information belongs to the people. Government agencies, such as the DDA, should help get information to the public, not wish to control it.
The thought of the DDA requiring permission to access public information and / or control information is not only a scary thought; it’s absolutely anti-American. After all, no one suffers from having too much access to the same information.
A personal hero of mine has always been Benjamin Franklin, and I leave you with this:
“Never trust a government that doesn’t trust its own citizens…”
Wonder why the phone number can’t tell you the available spaces? We are specifically blocked and forbidden to access their website. Here’s the page we get:
<!DOCTYPE HTML PUBLIC "-//IETF//DTD HTML 2.0//EN"> <html><head> <title>403 Forbidden</title> </head><body> <h1>Forbidden</h1> <p>You don't have permission to access /parking__transportation/available_parking_spots/ on this server.</p> <hr> <address>Apache/2.2.4 (Unix) mod_ssl/2.2.4 OpenSSL/0.9.7a DAV/2 mod_jk/1.2.20 PHP/5.2.1 Server at a2dda.org Port 80</address> </body></html>
Welcome to the new world order.