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Best of Parking & Mobility Magazine 2023: Defragmenting Parking Technology

This article was featured in the Best of 2023 Edition of Parking & Mobility Magazine by the International Parking & Mobility Institute. To read it in its original format, check out pages 30–34 here.

This post features the insights of IPMI Technology Committee members Sarah Becherer, VP of Marketing @ Ocra, Chris Perry, CRO @ Umojo, and Michelle McDonald, Chief of Staff and Business Development Lead @ Modii. To connect with Sarah, add her on LinkedIn or email sarah@getocra.com.

Parking: An Accelerating Ecosystem 

The parking industry is ripe with innovation, and new technologies are entering the marketplace faster than infrastructure is being built that enables them to communicate.

Forward-thinking operators are enhancing their tech stacks by the day with the aim of creating operational efficiency and surfacing data insights that will allow them to better focus on their core business (parking cars) – but fragmentation remains a roadblock.

Today our industry is in a position where leaders across all markets and sectors agree that we need to build a solution. We share a vision, we recognize the need, and we’ve rolled up our sleeves.

We agree that data is not worth its salt unless you can take action on it… and that defragmentation is the answer. 

By building flexible architecture that allows different systems to interoperate, we can begin to break down barriers that are holding us back from the open exchange of data and the ultimate frictionless customer experience.

“Norming and Forming” Data With Integrations

There are myriad technologies on the market. Parking is a highly competitive landscape.

When a parking manager uses a “build, partner, or buy” framework to assemble their tech stack, the likelihood of it being a carbon copy of the one assembled by the parking manager next door is slim to none.

This ecosystem of disconnected technologies causes friction for everybody:

  • For operators – when integrations between the system in their tech stack don’t exist (which as we’ve mentioned is too often the case), they need to be manually accomplished. This is an enormous lift for operators and often unsustainable.
  • For customers – siloed technology can lead to confusion and frustration because of how that dissonance and inconsistency impacts their experience at facilities. 

Customers having to manage credentials and payment methods for multiple apps is certainly inconvenient (and not uncommon for parkers in cities where multiple operators are present).

But the worst friction occurs when those apps aren’t talking to the technologies nestled at the inflection points that define the customer experience (ex. redemption, entry/exit, occupancy indication, wayfinding). 

Consolidation isn’t the solution being proposed here – in fact, quite the opposite. The flora and fauna of the parking technology ecosystem must continue to thrive in an hothouse of innovation.

That innovation is what makes the need for integration and universal data standards set by the Alliance for Parking Data Standards (APDS) and other regulatory organizations even more urgent. 

Defining Defragmentation

By definition, defragmentation is the reorganization of disparate fragments of related data. When we think about this definition for parking data, the concept seems sound. 

  • There exist many data sets from many distinct inflection points.
  • These inflection points can be connected to paint a bigger picture. 
  • With this accomplished, reporting, data analysis, and info-sharing will be more efficient, and data available will always be up-to-the-minute and accurate.

Basically: knowledge is power; ergo, more information is better. 

But data alone is not information.

Many parking systems include silos of technology and therefore silos of data. As standalone silos, this data has diminished value. Until it is viewed as one set, it cannot be considered viable information. 

This is demonstrated by the various ways that customers can access and pay for parking at the curb. Mobile apps and parking meters control the majority of curbside parking transactions with many municipalities leveraging several of each.

Each of these technologies includes its own reporting and administrative platform. The more technologies that are added to the municipality’s ecosystem, the more platforms there are to manage. 

So, what happens? 

  • Operating rhythms become syncopated
  • Time & resources become scarcer
  • Margin for human error increases
  • More opportunities to maximize yield go unnoticed

There are more places to log in. More credentials to manage.

More permissioning to set up and more read/write access to grant.

More people who need different info in various capacities at specific times.

More places to make changes when changes need to be made.

More places to pull reports from and more data to manually consolidate.

And if you’re a technology vendor trying to convince your operator prospects your solution isn’t going to pile on more work… well… you better think about your product and positioning in terms of adding unique value without adding complexity.

Because as the appeal of and demand for digital mobility solutions increases, as does the stress inflicted by defragmentation. 

Defragmentation as a Catalyst for Change

Defragmentation can be a catalyst for a more efficient and equitable environment. 

It’s too often that parking data is viewed as a benefit for administrators and operators and not as something that provides value to the public.

Thinking about curbside activity:

  • Occupancy reports help guide enforcement operations and policy changes, but they’re equally helpful to drivers searching for available parking. Integrating occupancy data with wayfinding, navigation, and signage technologies can point customers to available spaces. This cuts down on the amount of time they’re circling the block and reduces emissions.
  • Parking limits and tariffs are tools that can be used to accelerate turnover and foster a vibrant curbside. Drivers use this info to locate parking options in areas they want to visit, which stimulates local commerce (especially beneficial for neighborhoods not easily accessible by public transit or where parking is notoriously difficult to find).
  • The concept of equity is fueled by holistic integrated data. Equity is not simply about vehicular access; it includes the individuals inside of those vehicles and the businesses they frequent. The curb is a dynamic environment where deliveries are made, vehicles are parked, and businesses are visited. Facilitating access to these methods and locations for all people is essential to serve a community.

Extending these benefits to operators:

  • One thing we talk about when we talk about the customer experience is seamlessness during inflection points like transaction, redemption, entry, and exit. We know that customers who experience friction are more likely to churn and less likely to represent a consistent revenue stream.
  • The other thing we talk about is acquisition and retention. Data indicates to operators how to get the biggest bang for their marketing buck. Integrations with third-party aggregators can give operators conversion data (ex. what percentage of people who view in-app end up transacting). Integrations with PARCS illuminate when and for how long parkers park during any given period.
  • Real-time occupancy data and reliable predictive forecasting are essential to informing pricing structures. Customers perceive value based on how much they’re paying for the amount of time they need. Offering more time than is needed for slightly more than the customer is willing to pay can impact conversions. It also keeps the space “occupied” after the customer exits, reducing turnover and yield-per-stall.

And to equipment and software providers:

  • Open API integrations unlock opportunities for technology and equipment companies to form profitable and mutually beneficial partnerships and/or co-develop products to keep up with the rabid demand in the market.
  • Technology companies can stop competing to win in one of the silos and rather collaborate and share data.
  • Defragmentation is critical for the construction of a fully digitized ecosystem that will be the framework for future mobility solutions. Those vendors that participate in building this digital ecosystem will be cornerstones for its framework.

Limiting Factors & Roadblocks for Defragmentation

It’s critical to recognize that defragmentation and data-sharing require developing the mechanisms to do so. This uses valuable resources that could be earmarked for other initiatives.

Looking through this lens, one easily sees how this could be perceived as a cost that outweighs whatever benefit. 

This is all the more reason for technology companies to form strategic alliances and build solutions that can be integrated into a parking system without increasing complexity. 

Another limiting factor of defragmentation efforts is taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

There isn’t a world where every curb or facility has an identical configuration of technologies – nor should there be.

Thinking about the catch-all “best” tech and focusing solely on forming integrations between those is counterproductive and limiting.

Lack of data standardization is a colossal issue as well. Organizations like APD and the Open Mobility Foundation-Curb Data Standards (OMF-CDS) are imposing much-needed rigor in how we refer to and exchange data.

We also need to be thinking ten steps ahead and asking questions like “what’s coming after smartphones?”. The smartphone is so deeply ingrained in today’s parking systems and experiences.

But ultimately the future may look like having your electric autonomous vehicle know exactly where to drive and park based on the real-time data it consumes from various systems for parking reservations and guidance.

What will those integrations look like? 

And how do we create an environment for them?

The Philosophy of Defragmentation

There are a few philosophical ideas that inform successful defragmentation efforts in the parking industry. Let’s take a look:

  • Systems Thinking

    Systems thinking emphasizes the interconnectedness of different parts of a system. This means thinking about parking as part of a broader transportation system and developing an understanding of how parking interacts with other modes of transportation: public transit, walking, biking, micromobility, among others.
  • Customer-Centricity

    Customer-centricity is a methodology that highlights the needs and experiences of the customer and focuses on solving customer pain. It brings a crucial element into developing technology: empathy. Viewing parking through the lens of the driver is imperative because understanding their frustrations and pain points is how we build parking solutions that are intuitive, user-friendly, and stress-free.
  • Sustainability

    All of us are working towards a more sustainable future. Every year, we’re seeing more and more cities implement sustainable future planning that emphasizes the long-term health and well-being of the environment and society as a whole. We can quite literally deliver the blueprint – or “greenprint”, if you will – that communities are looking for by prioritizing the use of sustainable materials, energy-efficient technologies, and green infrastructure.

Future-forward cities – like Colorado Springs, Colorado – are investing in their city’s mobility future through the digitization of their infrastructure, curbsides, and off-street parking assets.

Unifying all of these technologies and their important data (like payments, occupancy tracking, permitting systems, enforcement, and LPR) into a single unified interface improves traffic flow, reduces congestion, and optimizes the efficiency and yield of existing parking assets.

Everybody benefits!

Roadmap for Defragmentation

Like all approaches formulated to tackle deeply-ingrained problems, talking about defragmentation is much easier than executing it. But it can be broken down into digestible and executable elements:

Implement systems thinking

Think big before you hone in.

You may have a specific use case right in front of your face, but it’s critical to consider the impact of establishing an integration in the larger context of your other technologies and customer touchpoints.

Sit down with your team and collect information on all aspects of how the system works before deciding which route to take. These conversations shouldn’t just consider past and current data sets… it’s not a historical process. Look back and look forward and set yourself up for success in the long term.

Define the scope

We all know that integrating datasets is a highly technical process that creates an environment where more efficient reporting and data analysis can occur.

But what this process doesn’t reference is all of the other processes that need to occur so that this merged data can actually work together. 

Take, for instance, a scope of work that includes the reporting of transactional data on a block face basis. Are the current datasets structured this way? What if Vendor A reports on a space basis while Vendor B reports on a zone basis?

On the surface, these datasets do not match. Adjustments or mapping must be done in order to correct this.

A successful scope will include an initial analysis of what this data looks like and which modifications or mapping must occur to make it work.

Set long-term objectives

Implementation requires planning and establishing the near-term and long-term objectives for your parking system.

These objectives may range from introducing multiple mobile payment options to positioning the system to accommodate autonomous vehicles.  

While these examples vary in terms of complexity, both will be advanced by processes that organize data and information. 

The former (introducing mobile payment methods) requires data-sharing to make the administration of these applications more efficient. 

For example, you can use integrations to surface essential reservations data to customer service reps in real time so they can more efficiently solve friction for customers who hit the call button with issues related to third party reservations.

The latter (accommodating autonomous vehicles) is heavily reliant on information, as scenarios like autonomous TNCs will require data to function properly. 

Can an autonomous transportation network company (TNC) double-park to conduct passenger pick-up/drop-off (PUDO)? Likely not. These technologies will need data from all parts of the parking system to navigate safe and approved parking locations.

Build the execution framework

After defining your goals in the context of the larger parking system, you can determine which “building blocks” you need and how to procure and manage them.

The building blocks may include in-house talent, tools, software, equipment, or marketing budget.

Recognize that your end goals may be moving targets; that’s normal. Keeping one eye on the future allows you to make short-term decisions about budget and resourcing with the end goals still in sight.

Make decisions about how to organize and store data

Parking managers must make decisions about how best to organize and store the data. No easy feat but much more simple to accomplish with the right information and infrastructure in place.

Start asking questions like:

  • Are we looking at outsourced solutions or do we have something internal already in place?
  • Are these solutions able to provide data, analytics, and reporting? 
  • Are they built to securely share data with third parties?

Regardless of whether you build, buy, or partner, adhering to data-sharing standards like the APDS and the OMF-CDS will standardize the process of transmitting data to and from external sources.

Vet and select vendors

Prudent vendor selection and favorable contractual terms are key elements for success.

Data integrations can be costly and time-consuming to build and maintain, and your organization may not want to shoulder that complexity. 

Technology companies and other vendors that develop solutions with defragmentation and connectivity in mind should be prioritized as those efforts future-proof them as partners and ensure flexibility on both ends. 

You can also add contractual terms to ensure that this occurs. Of course, the T&Cs must follow a properly communicated scope of work so that all parties are aware of the objectives and developments involved.

Examine past projects to learn how to manage stress points

Implementations are seldom (really, never) perfect. Defragmentation projects include multiple stress points that rely on collaboration to successfully move past.

The more fragmented the system, the more stress points we’ll encounter.

In Conclusion

Defragmentation is a work in progress and will remain so as long as new technologies continue to enter the market. 

What we can do to prepare for and preempt these challenges is:

  1. Build solutions from the ground up that can successfully integrate into the larger ecosystem and choose vendors that take this approach.
  2. Lead with a systematic, customer-centric, and sustainable philosophy so that we can approach decision-making with long-term goals in mind.

Einstein’s classic statement – “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” – certainly applies here! 

Ongoing iteration, learning from the past, and doing our due diligence when vetting vendors will ensure we’re alchemizing past challenges with defragmentation into future successes. 

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