Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

DDA Blocks Parking Information via Phone Service

13. March 2009 • Matt Hampel
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Back in January, a group of local hackers built a service that allowed people to call in and check on parking structure spot availability in realtime (MLive article). It as powered by freely available data from the Downtown Development Authority website.

However, several days ago, the DDA shut off the application’s access to the site, because:

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 developers of the system have responded in this open letter.

The realtime parking data site is still available online for individuals — but the DDA has emphatically said, “no reuse.”

  1. To me, this decision seems absurd. A publicly funded organization is denying its customers use of data they are paying for.

    The developer clarifies point 2 in his blog post — there was no intent to make a profit, and in fact, all the software was released for free for others to reuse.

       —Matt    Mar. 13 '09 - 06:46AM    #
  2. The page that Matt links to has not been updated for days;

    is not “updated every minute by Republic Parking” as promised.

    If anyone has a webcam pointed at any of the signs, I would guess that some small amount of image processing could reconstruct the data feed. (ha ha only serious)

    As for making a profit, the initial prototype was put together in a matter of days, and the cost per transaction is measured in the pennies. The real cost of operations is making sure it always works and marketing it to people coming in from the burbs. Whether someone wants to spend money to do that is a reasonable political question, not a technical one.

       —Edward Vielmetti    Mar. 13 '09 - 07:24AM    #
  3. Tyler Erickson, Ed, and some other a2geeks are planning an OpenDataCamp for Ann Arbor coming up – get in touch if you’d like to help plan such a thing. For inspiration, check out:

    * Vivek Kundra, named Federal Chief Information Officer under Obama

    * Apps for Democracy

    * TransparencyCamp

    * ACM on Open Government

       —Dug Song    Mar. 13 '09 - 07:59AM    #
  4. Thanks for helping spread the word about the DDA’s handling of access to public information.

       —Fred Posner    Mar. 13 '09 - 04:11PM    #
  5. I am appalled at this arbitrary and unjustified decision. The DDA should promptly reconsider this.

       —Larry Kestenbaum    Mar. 13 '09 - 06:13PM    #
  6. For an example of other local innovation that happens with access to open data and APIs, check out Scott Wolchok’s excellent UM bus mashups: MBusReloaded

    Anyone else that might be interested in developing mashups with open data and APIs, come join us next week for Yahoo’s Open Technology Night on Thursday, March 19
    (open to the entire community, including non-students).

       —Dug Song    Mar. 13 '09 - 06:56PM    #
  7. The DDA are clearly very, very incorrect in their handling of this. They should apologize and restore the system immediately. Imagine, a tax-funded institution who is actively frustrating citizens’ efforts to improve their operations in a public, free, and open way?

    The fallout from negative press if any news organizations get ahold of this will be highly embarrassing for DDA members, their businesses, and the city in general.

       —Trek Glowacki    Mar. 13 '09 - 07:06PM    #
  8. re #5, here is what the Michigan FOIA law has to say about arbitrary restrictions on public data:

    Penalties for Violation of the Act:
    If the circuit court finds that the public body has arbitrarily and capriciously violated the Freedom of Information Act by
    refusal or delay in disclosing or providing copies of a public record,it may,in addition to any actual or compensatory damages,
    award punitive damages of $500 to the person seeking the right to inspect or receive a copy of a public record.

       —Edward Vielmetti    Mar. 14 '09 - 10:34AM    #

    Ann Arbor News story by reporter Dave Gershman:

    In a city where getting a parking spot can feel like hitting the lottery, it may be no surprise that a squabble broke out over who should distribute information on how many parking spaces are available in downtown Ann Arbor.

       —Edward Vielmetti    Mar. 14 '09 - 04:53PM    #
  10. And Arbor Update had the story first – again!

    The DDA’s website appears to be working again. Thanks for small favors.

       —David Cahill    Mar. 14 '09 - 05:28PM    #
  11. DataGate!

       —Fred Zimmerman    Mar. 14 '09 - 06:36PM    #
  12. The DDA’s justifications for blocking access to this service are weak at best. The claims of threats to security and monetization of the project are being thrown out to blow smoke in the eyes of the average reader who would not be familiar with how the technology works and is left with the impression that this is being done by wanna-be hackers or corporate pirates-in-training. But…there’s no FOIA claim here, at least in the current actions of the DDA.

    This could make for an interesting test case for access to publicly available government-owned data. But the current actions of the DDA, while short-sighted and clueless don’t rise to the action of a FOIA claim. I see on another site that Ed V. has made a formal FOIA request. It will be interesting to see how it’s handled.

       —John Q.    Mar. 14 '09 - 07:07PM    #
  13. Agreed—I don’t see the FOIA issue here.

    “Imagine, a tax-funded institution who is actively frustrating citizens’ efforts to improve their operations in a public, free, and open way?”

    Exactly. Why do this?

       —Daniel Adams    Mar. 14 '09 - 08:17PM    #
  14. If Vielmetti’s request is denied, I’m thinking there may be a FOIA claim here for the reason that the FOIA requires that public information be made available in the form requested. The request specifically asked for access to the DDA realtime parking data via the website. As this is a reasonable request, the DDA would now have to claim a specific exemption for not granting the request.

    I predict it won’t go this far and that the DDA will bow to pressure and retract their former denial and allow full access. It’s too bad it had to come to this, but if publicly shaming public officials is the only way to keep them from being so damn secretive—then I’m all for it.

       —Michael Schils    Mar. 14 '09 - 09:25PM    #
  15. If the FOIA request is accepted, then we carry on with writing code.

    If the FOIA request is denied, in whole or in part, then we appeal. Michigan FOIA Act 442, 15.240, specifies that a written appeal is required. In the spirit of openness, I’d like to start drafting that appeal now – I know there are some 1L’s in the world who just did an appellate brief, so perhaps at least the structure of that can be used to organize the argument.

       —Edward Vielmetti    Mar. 14 '09 - 11:45PM    #
  16. I have found the DDA to be forthcoming with information and easy to work with. So, I am curious. What was the process behind the initial request for data? Looking through minutes, I don’t see the topic discussed at a board meeting.

       —CDBF    Mar. 15 '09 - 06:15AM    #
  17. There wasn’t an initial request — the DDA decided to publish the information on their website, then blocked it because people used it.

    Or are you referring to a different request?

       —Matt Hampel    Mar. 15 '09 - 06:47AM    #
  18. There is nothing in Susan Pollay’s explanation to indicate that the DDA Board ever acted on the data cut-off. Instead, she said the DDA’s Operations Committee met. This meeting could not have been a regular Operations Committee meeting according to that committee’s meeting schedule. So it seems to me that the DDA Board could reverse its committee’s decision.

       —David Cahill    Mar. 15 '09 - 04:33PM    #
  19. Mr. Vielmetti, good luck with your appeal. This is total madness.

       —Alan Goldsmith    Mar. 16 '09 - 04:34PM    #
  20. I don’t understand why the DDA would not WANT this. It seems more like something they don’t understand so they are afraid of it. As David Cahill notes, this decision did not come from the whole board. I bet it gets sorted out when it gets to them.

       —Dusty Lake    Mar. 16 '09 - 06:08PM    #
  21. Hmm. Now the DDA’s website says “Parking data is temporarily unavailable.”

    Why? Does it contain state secrets? Would its availability help terrorists find places to park?

       —David Cahill    Mar. 16 '09 - 08:20PM    #
  22. Is the DDA information PUBLIC information, or is it PRIVATE information?

    If the DDA parking information is actually public data, I don’t understand what the problem is. There are companies on the web that compile public information for a fee and do not ask for access permission from the organizations they get the data from. The companies that do background checks on people are the prime example; they charge a fee for compiling information that is collected from public databases.

    Currently, this phone system is free, but even it does charge a fee, so what. The public has the choice to use the free system or pay a fee for info by phone when they are not near a computer. The DDA should be happy that someone else is building upon their system without the DDA having to invest in it.

    There fight over this makes it appear as if the DDA is trying to hide the statistics of their data. I personally don’t think that this is the case; I think they have just made some bad judgment calls.

    But sometimes, perception is all that counts.

    The DDA needs to reverse their standing on this before the perception damages their reputation irrevocably.

       —Diane    Mar. 16 '09 - 08:43PM    #
  23. I’m thinking the DDA officials who restricted access to this seemingly harmless information were just reacting to an episode of “24” where a terrorist plot was thwarted at the last minute by means of a comparatively insignificant violation of citizens’ rights.

    I mean, what if on September 11, 2001, the 19 box cutter-wielding religious fanatics, who managed to confound the most powerful intelligence and military force in the world, had actually never FOUND A GOOD PLACE TO PARK?!

    History would have certainly played out differently.

    /sarcasm off

       —Michael Schils    Mar. 17 '09 - 04:54AM    #
  24. Maybe we should start organizing.

       —MattH    Mar. 18 '09 - 04:37AM    #