A parking ticket can teach a lot about productivity

Improved productivity and efficiency are today’s table stakes when it comes to companies placing bets on technology, and the high-rollers are focused on mobile technology.

A survey late last year of 253 chief information officers by ITWorldCanada revealed improved productivity and efficiency are at the top of the list when it comes to what businesses are seeking from IT investments. Canadian businesses are more often willing to buy if one or the other (and preferably both) exist.

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It’s no surprise, then, that those are the things most vendors are evangelizing. Sometimes it’s difficult to cut through their hype and see the value in an IT investment, but there are occasions when the payoff seems pretty obvious.

Take, for example, the groundswell of interest from Canadian municipalities around parking enforcement. It has traditionally been a fairly low-tech job, but new systems powered by cutting-edge mobile computerized equipment, data collection software and wireless communication systems are changing that. A company getting a lot of looks from municipalities across the country is Quebec City-based DAP Technologies Ltd. It makes rugged mobile computers, including handheld equipment designed to streamline the process of issuing parking tickets.

The technology behind parking enforcement is similar to that used by public utilities such as hydro, water and natural gas, where meter readers use a rugged handheld device to collect data. Parking enforcement officers are armed with a handheld device about the size of a large calculator, and a belt-mounted printer. Bluetooth wireless technology allows officers to enter data into the handheld, then at the push of a button print up a ticket. The data collected on the units can be quickly downloaded to a personal computer, or a parking ticket issued through the handheld device can be sent to a municipality’s central data repository through a wireless connection.

A global positioning system (GPS) receiver is built into the handhelds and can validate the time and location where an officer issues a ticket, making tracking easier. Brian Aldham, a spokesperson for DAP, says some models contain cameras that can take photographs of a car at its location and print them onto the ticket. Parking meters with built-in GPS can also be scanned by the handheld to both valid the meter expiry and verify the exact meter where the infraction occurred.

The payback is simple to calculate. The technology allows municipalities to issue more tickets, reduce errors, and it eliminates the cumbersome and time-consuming data entry involved with handwritten tickets. DAP’s latest software provides real-time access to computerized infraction-related data, including court and police records, permits, parking meters, and even officers’ field notes.

“There are a number of major Canadian cities currently evaluating this, or similar, [computerized parking enforcement] technology,” Mr. Aldham says. Michael Leccese, a technical sales representative for DAP, estimates that, through the use of his company’s Microflex Solution for parking enforcement, every parking control officer could write an average of three additional tickets each day. That doesn’t sound like a whole lot until you calculate that 300 officers working 260 days (not counting weekends) a year in a large city could slip 234,000 additional tags under the wiper blades of cars. For cash-strapped municipalities, that’s that’s a lot of missed “opportunity.”

Eliminating the need for data entry from handwritten tickets is an important productivity consideration. Not only does it cut down processing time and costs, since there’s no need for data entry clerks to key handwritten tickets into computerized systems, it means fewer errors. About 5 per cent of tickets are currently tossed because they are deemed indecipherable due to poor handwriting, says Mr. Leccese.

The mobile technology also boosts productivity in new ways for the cities involved. Mr. Aldham explains it’s possible – through a wireless connection to a back-end information repository – for officers using the portable devices to check the history of tagged vehicles and immediately summon a towing company to cart away any found to have numerous outstanding citations. That equals more revenue for the city generated by each parking enforcement employee.

The computerized system also makes it possible to more rapidly repair a malfunctioning meter. An officer who spots a broken meter can scan its barcode into the handheld. That information is then wirelessly relayed to a municipal works department and generates a repair work order to fix the meter, which might be up and running again later that day. That’s a process that previously could have taken months when done on paper.

The cost to equip a parking control officer – including handheld device, printer and the software – is about $6,000. The payback in terms of increased efficiency and revenue for municipalities is realized in as little as six months, according to DAP.

“People issued tickets are now paying them in a more timely manner, because there’s a realization that they just can’t tear them up and forget about them,” Mr. Aldham says.

Computerization is the way of the future in traditionally low-tech jobs such as parking enforcement, given the efficiency and increased productivity it has to offer. There are clear lessons here for managers with vision – modern mobile technology can have immediate benefits for companies in just about any industry, from insurance to warehousing to commerce.

It’s a straightforward value proposition.

— This article appeared in The Globe and Mail on May 19, 2005.

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