Stephen Smith

Stephen Smith
Republic Parking, IT Manager
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tottered on: 11 April 2008
Temperature: 51 F
Ceiling: roiling clouds
Ground: brick pavers
Wind: SSE at 7mph

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TT with HD: Stephen Smith

parking structure ann arbor
Totter 2.0 on location at Ann Ashley Parking Structure

[Ed. note: This ride was made possible in part by two alums of the totter, Susan Pollay, Executive Director of the DDA, who helped me (re-)connect with Stephen Smith, and Jimmy Raggett, who happened to be riding past and helped with the photography. More on that at a later date in a different place.]

HD: Okay, let's actually teeter totter now. Welcome to the teeter totter, by the way.

SS: Thank you. It's an honor to be here.

HD: Well, it's great to have you, especially on a day when the weather looks so threatening, and is forecast to be so violent.

SS: Right. I see a storm coming that way.

HD: Can you really?

SS: Yeah. You can see the clouds.

HD: [turning around] Holy crap. Yeah. So that's coming from the south?

SS: Yes.

HD: Hmm, is that consistent with what I've seen on radar--yes, it is. I think the stuff is coming up from the south ...

SS: ... I think so, I was checking the weather last night.

HD: So we need to teeter rapidly. The reason I picked this spot, obviously, is because I wanted to talk about the parking counters. And you know something about this?

SS: I do!

HD: Okay. Maybe you could just describe what the current state of affairs is. I mean everybody can see the signs--we know that we're counting the parking spaces that are available now.

SS: Sure!

HD: For pure entertainment value, for my money anyway, it's worth it! [laugh] Just because you can stand and watch and see it actually work. Cars go in, and the count goes up, and cars come out and the count goes down. A couple of weeks ago Friday night, 4th and Washington parking structure, first time I had ever seen it, it's said 'Full'!

SS: It's a busy structure!

HD: Yeah. A car came out, though, and it said '1'.

SS: Ding!

HD: And a car went in, and it said 'Full' again. And so a crowd of us gathered--and when I say a 'crowd' I mean like maybe five or six people--we were standing around kind of rooting for it, you know?

SS: Yeah! [laugh]

HD: So maybe you could just describe how it came to be that we've got these counters.

SS: Okay. As you know we try and focus on customer service. And our customers are the residents of the city of Ann Arbor. The DDA [Downtown Development Authority] was focused on a means of alleviating some of our parking overcrowding. Part of their thinking was, Well, not all of our structures fill up. And if you could easily check and see before you made your trip to Ann Arbor, how full whatever lot you wanted to go to was, you might target another lot or another structure and walk a few extra blocks, in lieu of not knowing if one structure would be full or not. So the first step we had to do was put these signs up, and install equipment in our central office, which is actually this structure [Ann Ashley]. This is our hub, right here.

HD: Well, I saw you go into the office. Is this where you actually work??

SS: I work out of the 4th and William structure. But as the IT manager I work everywhere. You will rarely ever find me in my office. I am in the field a lot.

HD: But the 4th and William structure is your home office? That is where your nameplate sits?

SS: Yes.

HD: And you work for Republic Parking, or do you work for the DDA?

SS: I work for Republic Parking, I share duties taking care of the DDA's information technology--their server, their e-mail, desktop support. Whenever they need anything.

HD: But are there other responsibilities that you have outside of Ann Arbor for Republic? I mean, do you do work for Republic that is not specific to Ann Arbor?

SS: I don't as of yet. I'm a pretty new hire at Republic. I have been there a little over a month.

HD: Wow, okay.

SS: Yeah, but I was an outside contractor before.

HD: Okay, so it wasn't like a month ago you waded into this and said, Okay, what's going on?

SS: I didn't come in out of the blue. I was a contractor for the Downtown Development Authority, and I was a contractor for Republic. We have a lot of a new initiatives coming out.

HD: Connected with counting of the spaces? Because you said it would be nice if somebody before leaving their home could check out the parking structures--so they're not going to be able to see these signs unless, they live right over there at 209 Ashley--but if you lived there you wouldn't need to park here. [laugh].

SS: Correct! [laugh] So Step Two, we just rolled out--I believe it was reported in the Ann Arbor News, I'm not sure--we now have it online.

HD: Yeah, I've seen that, actually.

SS: And it updates real-time--well, almost real-time. Every minute. So you can get a real good sense. Phase 3 is we are going to be rolling out a mobile phone version. A lot of people have smart phones, iPhones. A version of our webpage will be tuned to that application--to the small format.

HD: So for somebody who has one of those fancy iPhones that already gets the entire web anyway, I mean they are already set.

SS: They could already--they are set. Some of the other phones aren't quite as capable to view a full-sized web page.

HD: For example, my phone is whatever Verizon was giving away free two years ago. Which doesn't do squat except texting and voice.

SS: Yeah, you would have to have an internet service plan for your phone. But a lot of people do. I'm not really sure when this next project is set to roll out, but shortly the mobile phone version will be coming out.

HD: So will that be based on the texting function of the phone at all?

SS: No, it's just a website, but that is geared towards Windows mobile browser--there are a number of mobile browsers.

HD: So Windows only, not Macintosh?

SS: Oh, well, Nokia has a mobile phone based on Linux, so we are going to try to target a lot of the different platforms.

HD: And is there like a Phase 4 after that even?

SS: We don't have a plan for text messaging as of yet. If there is a real demand for it, a real need for it, I'm sure we'd consider it. As of right now, we're just trying to go slow and roll out one thing at a time and see how folks like it.

HD: So have you noticed that there are folks who are taking the website data, and scraping it and dumping it into aggregate files?

SS: We are hoping that people do.

HD: Oh, I'm telling you, they are!

SS: Oh, okay! Yeah, no, I haven't had a lot of time to pay attention to our statistics yet, but I will at the end of this month. It just rolled out April 1st. Our area associations, I imagine, are going to want to embed this--and we encourage them to--in their own webpages. For instance, Main Street Area Association, and State Street Area Association. There are a lot of them, these associations and other organizations, who could really benefit from it, especially if you're going to have an event, you're telling your attendees to come downtown.

HD: So do you have direct control over what that code looks like and what kind of data is actually spit out onto that screen?

SS: We do, yeah.

HD: So would it be possible for you guys to, say, just create a script or whatever needs to be created, to write aggregate data to a file? So that every minute that it gets written to the web screen, also write it to a file, append the data and then every 24 hours, say, you could get like a daily picture of what's going on?

SS: We could. We haven't, because we have our own SQL database on site here that we track all of our statistics. If someone wanted a report, I'm sure we could get it to them, if you wanted to see a more aggregated compilation of usage for the garage.

HD: I take it you guys are more focused on what would be of use to a driver right here, right now? As opposed to facilitating some research by a parking scientist who wanted to study the data?

SS: Right. Although we have worked with a lot of scientists, a lot of folks from urban planning, to the business school, to engineering school at the U of M [University of Michigan]. Frequently they will approach us and want to do studies on surface lots and structures, and we are always willing to cooperate and help them out.

HD: So have you a chance to look at any of the aggregated data yet of the structure use?

SS: Oh, definitely! And that's what informs a lot of our decisions on adding parking and it helps Susan Pollay and the DDA Board make a lot of their decisions. For instance, as they are contemplating a new structure on the Library Lot, part of their reasoning is the number of times that our structures go over 85% capacity, which is a staggering number of times. Many times it's multiple times per day.

HD: So 85% capacity is what people in the parking industry would consider to be 'full'?

SS: Yeah, it's kind of a benchmark. And often times it will go completely full. For instance, Maynard is one of our busiest structures. It just seems like it goes full every day. It's so popular. The 4th and Washington structure that you cited earlier, that's a very, very busy structure. And a lot of our surface lots just fill up all day long.

HD: So are there any plans to integrate surface lots into this sort of data system? So as far as I understand it what's available online anyway is just data for the structures?

SS: We don't have signs at the surface lots, but certainly we could consider adding the surface lots to the website. [Ed. note: Three key surfaces lots were added by SS the afternoon of the same day of the totter ride.]

HD: So that is something that you are already collecting the data for?

SS: We are collecting the data and we could certainly do that. We'll have to look at it. We're kind of testing it out and this kind of feedback is great, so I'll definitely bring that feedback to Susan Pollay [Director, DDA] and to Joe Morehouse [Deputy Director, DDA], and Tony Bisesi [Republic Parking].

HD: And actually it's not just the surface lots where I think would be possible to collect data now, right? There are some of these metered locations along the street, where it's an aggregated meter place where you swipe your card as opposed to putting in coins?

SS: And that's actually pretty exciting. That's another project we're working on. That's on-street parking 'pay by space' we call it in the industry. So basically have you been down to Main Street at Main and William ...

HD: ... this is right across from Ashley Mews?

SS: Yes. You'll notice a ...

HD: ... it's like a kiosk.

SS: Yeah, a kiosk, exactly. I believe it does eight parking spaces--I could be wrong on that. It does a number of parking spaces. You key in the parking space number, and then you can feed a credit card, cash, coin, whatever you prefer to pay, into it. And we do collect data and statistics from that. That was a test case for us--we are testing out a particular piece of equipment from one of the many manufacturers. And we are currently writing an RFP.

HD: Okay, so it's not necessarily going to be that manufacturer.

SS: It might not be, right. We want to get the best product, we are asking for community feedback on how people interact with it.

HD: So for this particular product, if the DDA said, Okay, we want you to interleave the data from that into what is currently available for the parking structures on the web, what would you have to do specifically? Would it be a matter of going out there with a bunch of copper wire and tin snips?

SS: No, hopefully not [laugh]. There are a number of solutions that we're looking at right now. Both are wireless. One is a kind of wireless mesh network, using 80211 technology, which is very similar to technology you might find in your home.

HD: Maybe not my home, though.

SS: Well, if you have a wireless access point at your home or maybe one of your neighbors do ...

HD: ... well, I have a wireless modem.

SS: Yeah, so it's very similar to that. Maybe a little more sophisticated.

HD: So you're not talking about some futuristic Smart Home technology then, or anything?

SS: Right. So the other way is cellular technology. Sprint or Verizon or one of these companies, going to them and saying, Hey, sell us the modems for each of our machines, and these machines can then talk back to our equipment, and we can gather the data and it enables us to do credit cards ...

HD: ... and when you say 'equipment', you are abbreviating for my sake, I'm sure, because I don't know what that might entail. What if you had a fellow IT geek on the other end of the teeter totter, how would you describe that 'equipment'?

SS: Wow, okay. [laugh] How much time do you have?

HD: I got all day, until the thunderstorms start. [laugh]

SS: It looks like the clouds are clearing up over there anyway, so. Basically this equipment runs a single-board computer inside, and it has bill acceptors, and coin acceptors, and a magnetic strip reader, and you have to give it a means to communicate.

HD: And we are talking about the kiosk now?

SS: The kiosk, right. So once it can communicate, it communicates back to a secure web portal and that web portal is run by the company that we buy the equipment from. For instance, the equipment that we have on the street right now is made by Digital Payment Solutions, they are one of the biggest US-based manufacturers of this kind of equipment. [high volume passing traffic noise]

HD: And you said Digital Paper Solutions???

SS: Payment. They make a lot of different street parking devices, from wind-powered, to solar, to good old-fashioned plug-it-into-the-wall copper wire. And there are a lot of different ways you can make them communicate. You can use fiber optics, you can use cellular, you can use 80211. Right now we have them communicating through 80211 back to one of our structures, because are doing a test. We wanted to really see if it could make it through a winter, what kind problems it has.

HD: Well, this winter would have been a really good winter for a test.

SS: It was a real good winter! It was a record snowfall and we spent a lot of money on snow removal this year.

HD: So this--is it 80211, is that what it is?

SS: 80211, and then there are different standards of 80211.

HD: So if somebody who really knew what they were doing decided that they wanted to intercept that wireless feed from that kiosk--I mean I can't imagine anybody would want parking data and what they would be able to do with it.

SS: They can certainly try, but we have it encrypted ...

HD: ... oh, okay.

SS: Nothing is completely hack-proof but we have a multi-layer of security standards set in place. We are PCI compliant--that might not mean anything to you, ...

HD: ... absolutely not!

SS: Payment Card Industry compliant. The payment card industry got together and said, These are a bunch of standards we want to impose upon people who are going to use our merchant services.

HD: So this is not anything bizarre, so it wouldn't be fair to describe the DDA as being paranoid about protecting their parking space data?

SS: Definitely not. We're trying to protect customer data. In all the standard ways that we should.

HD: Oh, right, of course!! Because if somebody swiped their credit card then that's in the kiosk somewhere?

SS: It's encrypted in multiple layers. One nice thing is we don't have to worry about the machine, someone could steal it--no credit card information is stored in the machine. So it literally just goes straight to a secure portal at Digital Payment Solutions.

HD: That's very cool.

SS: They are actually payment card industry certified, so they are one step above 'compliant', which helped give us peace of mind as we are doing business with them.

HD: Well, earlier you mentioned something about 4th and Washington being one of the busiest structures and Maynard filling up nearly every day--actually going to zero open spaces. If someone were to give you like a plot of available spaces for a particular parking structures, or actually for all the individual parking structures for say like a week, do you think you would be able to say like, Ahhh, that's Maynard. Just like based on the shape of the graph?

SS: Possibly. Yeah, I mean, I don't know.

HD: Do you want to have a go?

SS: Sure, I'll give it a shot! [laugh]

HD: I'm going to toss this to you--well wait, we'll stop teeter tottering here a second. [Ed. note: A rolled up bundle of graphs secured with a rubber band is successfully tossed from one end of the totter to the other--a milestone event for Teeter Talk.] So I have even removed the y-axis scale, so you're not going to be able to use your knowledge of how many available spaces there are.

SS: [laugh] Okay, so ...

HD: ... so this is basically for last week, or the past week.

SS: And these are all the different structures?

HD: Those are all the different structures.

SS: And the low and high? This means none available, and that means a lot available?

HD: Right. The bottom of the scale is zero spaces, and then the top of the scale is is whatever it might be for that particular structure.

SS: Okay, let's see here. So Sunday doesn't count, of course, because we have our gates up.

HD: Right, you can pick out Sunday without even looking at the x-axis, because it's just a flat line.

SS: So that makes a lot of sense, this is a busy structure, okay. And you want me to pick out Maynard, right?

HD: If you can pick out Maynard, or any one that you can pick out, where you would say, Yes, that's got to be whatever. You know, it's interesting to me that you are looking at those with a different orientation then I have been looking at them. You're looking at what I would consider to be the y-axis oriented like it was the x-axis.

SS: Okay, yeah, I'm looking for valleys here. And the tightness of the valleys. I'm going to say this is ...

HD: ... there's actually a letter in the corner there, and I wrote down the key on a piece of paper for myself.

SS: Okay, D is 4th and William.

HD: Wow, man, you rock!

SS: [laugh]

HD: But you know that's your home office, so that's the one you really should know. That's like the home-field advantage.

SS: E, no, C is Ann Ashley.

HD: Yep! C is Ann Ashley.

SS: E is Liberty Square.

HD: Oh, sorry, I forgot to tell you, Liberty Square is not among these. There seemed to be something hinky with the data--I don't know if it was the original data or the scraped feed ...

SS: ... it doesn't come on until 3:00--it's not a transient lot until 3:00.

HD: So I'm not going to count that as wrong.

SS: Okay. Oh, wait a minute, right, right, right. Okay.

HD: You've got C and D correct so far.

SS: I'm going to go out on a limb and say B is Maynard?

HD: B is not Maynard.

SS: Then B is Forest.

HD: Yeah that's pretty good.

SS: And A is Maynard.

HD: Yep, wow. Which leaves ...

SS: ... so what am I missing? Oh, 4th and Washington.

HD: 4th and Washington, yeah. [Ed. note: 4th and Washington was graph E.] To me, the interesting thing about 4th and Washington is, it's got a little extra dip that's more pronounced for people coming back in the evening.

SS: Restaurant traffic, sure. That whole Washington Street, very interesting, yeah. I knew Maynard and Forest would be the toughest, because especially during the school year, it's so busy. Forest is such a busy structure. And of course you know, we co-locate with the U of M in that structure, we co-built it with them. There are a number of U of M parkers there, too.

HD: So, 'co-locate' is bound to be a professional parking vocabulary item.

SS: [laugh] It is, sorry, right. We developed it together. Very cool. So, I got one wrong!

HD: Yeah, but very good though! I am impressed. You know that pattern with 4th and Washington, where you can kind of see that extra little dip that's more pronounced than the other structures--some of the other structures you can discern it is a slight little hitch, but it's more pronounced at 4th and Washington. I think it would be really interesting just to plot the increments. Because what you guys count, when you say there's 169--I'm looking at the sign now--169 spaces available, that's not a sensing of the parking structure state at this given moment, we are not sensing every spot and saying, Oh there's 169 empty. We're saying, we know how many there were to start with, and now we're counting cars entering and leaving.

SS: Exactly.

HD: So it's those incrementations that I think would be really fascinating to plot out. So every time there's an increment, plot it on an exact time scale and then you could see, if you collapsed the activity across the timescale per minute, and then you would really see just how pronounced the extra dip is reflecting the traffic at 4th and Washington. So I assume that's something that you guys do.

SS: Yeah we have that data, yeah, I'm sure I could get you hooked up with it.

HD: I mean it's not something that I personally want to study, but plotting out the graphs like I did there, I mean, that's good entertainment! For an afternoon, anyway.

So from what I know about you, you didn't get into this because you're passionate about parking per se. You are passionate about IT.

SS: Yeah!

HD: And it happens to be that the IT you are doing is parking related.

SS: But it has been really exciting! You wouldn't believe the amount of IT equipment, machines, data, and just stuff there is involved in parking. It's a really complicated field that really has a lot of IT need, and it's been really exciting to work here. For this whole month I have been so busy, and I've worked a lot of hours and it's been fun. I have learned so many things about loops and gates, [laugh] card readers--everything talks to our central office. It's a whole lot of information to try to make sense of. There's a lot of exciting things that you can do with it, and ways that you can improve customer service. That's what we are looking to do. To make a parking experience better for the city of Ann Arbor.

HD: But do you find it at all frustrating, though, when people see the counter signs for example, one first reaction is, Well, those don't do anybody any good--what you need is you need to know that information right in your car--three blocks away! And then once you deliver that, then I imagine the complaint will be that we want to know where in the parking structure of those spaces are, so that people can go exactly to them.

SS: Sure. Someday that might be possible. Now it's a little bit cost-prohibitive to know exactly where the spots are. It would require whole lot of wiring and so forth.

HD: But it wouldn't require the development of new technology, right?

SS: It would, yeah. [honk] [Ed. note: SS waves at passing truck.]

HD: Do you know that guy?

SS: No! Possibly. I'm sure you could do something with RFID technology. I don't know, we could probably hardwire the garage. I would think you would need new technology to make it cost effective, to make it make sense to spend the kind of money that it would take to log every structure.

HD: So over at the 4th and William structure, which is your home base, do you have a dedicated parking spot?

SS: I don't, no.

HD: Oh, man!

SS: We reserve the best spots for our customers. We move way up the deck and we walk down. Or sometimes if I'm in a hurry, and I'm delivering a lot of equipment, I'll park on the street at a meter and bring my stuff in.

HD: So it's kind of like the same principle, if you work at a grocery store or any of these large ...

SS: ... any retailer, sure. The best spots are for customers.

HD: Yeah, lesson Number One is, if you park here, you better be parking at the farthest spots.

SS: What you'll notice is, we do have a few Republic-only spots, and we like to reserve those for deliveries that are near our offices for our vendors. We have a great vendor we work with called Traffic and Safety, and they frequently are responding to emergency situations that we are having, and we like to be able to put them there. We also put our plow trucks and our maintenance trucks there.

HD: You guys have plow trucks???

SS: We have plow trucks. We do. And we use them.

HD: Oh, right. I guess, I don't know why that was surprising to me, but obviously I was surprised. But if you noodle it through for two seconds you have all those surface parking lots ...

SS: ... all of our roofs, our surface parking lots, we do a lot of plowing. There's one of our trucks right now!

HD: So is there anything else you want to clear up, or talk about, that we haven't touched on that you think deserves mention?

SS: You know I would just like to say thanks for taking time to interview me, I feel honored to be in this seat, I know a lot of very important people have been in this seat, I'm a little out of my depth.

HD: Thank you! I think riding the teeter totter makes people all that much more important. It takes people who might be unimportant--which is not to say that you are in any way unimportant--but it makes them a little more important. Well listen, thanks for coming, I can't believe we got through this right without ...

SS: ... without getting wet.

HD: I was worried about getting struck by lightning, to be honest.

SS: Although this is mostly wood.

HD: Listen, thanks for riding! and let's hop off and see how we did.