Parking a successful project on the streets of Westminster

Project Eye's colleagues in PROMSG - that's the BCS Project Management Specialist Group - are  always keen to attract presentations that describe real projects. In May they persuaded Kieran Fitsall of Westminster City Council to talk about an innovative project to put sensors in all the on-road parking spaces in Westminster.

These are then linked to a central system that allows motorists to use a free mobile app to find where there is a parking space. This talk was a reminder of how technology implementation projects inevitably involve a network of relationships between interacting and sometimes clashing actors, both human and non-human (e.g. recalcitrant legacy systems with a mind of their own).

For a start, public sector projects invariably have a political dimension. Project Eye was previously alerted to this when a couple of years back, PROMSG had a presentation on the Met Office Weather on the Web (WOW) project. This was a seemingly innocuous application allowing amateur weather watchers with their own meteorological measurement gadgets to post their data on a dedicated Met Office web site. When Project Eye wrote this project up, it felt that a bit of what it claims is 'in-depth research' was needed i.e. a quick Google search.

Project Eye was surprised to find that the Met Office was not universally regarded as a national treasure. Some profit-driven organisations existed which some media apparently felt would do a better job than the Met Office - generating profits for investors if nothing else. The WOW project could be seen as a public relations exercise responding to these attacks.

Kieran Fitsall's talk started by reminding us that a leader of Westminster City Council had had to resign as the result of a media storm over a proposal to extend parking charges to Sundays. The focus tends to be on financial goals such as increasing income or saving costs, but this shows that public sentiment can sometimes come out on top.

While on the one hand there were the human actors, including local residents, to be won over, there were tricky technological issues. The proposed sensors were embedded in the surface of the street, and had to communicate with central processors via relays attached to street-lights. Would this work reliably in one of the world's busiest cities?

The project became a text book example of risk reduction as the answer was to implement a limited proof of concept trial, before a full-scale implementation. In parallel to this technology-centred task, a culture change was attempted in what we IT people might call the human interface. 'Traffic wardens' were rebranded as 'traffic marshals'. The technology supplied information to the marshals about free parking spots and the marshal could actually be helpful to drivers by passing the up-to-date information on parking availability.

One outcome of the new developments was the reduction average number of altercations and assaults each day on traffic wardens/marshals: down from around 5.2 a day to 1.5: a rather brutal metric for assessing 'customer satisfaction'.

Having got this data on free/occupied parking spaces, there are lots of different ways of generating benefits. The obvious one is the creation of a mobile app that enables motorists to identify where they can park. This of course means that more cars are parked and so City revenues are increased - so there was a financial benefit after all.

An API is available so that system developers can incorporate this real-time data into their own, say, route-finding application. The parking data accumulated is of such a volume that the smart parking application ticks the 'big data' box, and data analysts are no doubt having a field day trying to develop predictive models.

Getting back to a more obviously project management focus, the proof of concept also allowed a more informed procurement process for the full implementation of parking sensor implementation.

This is all very well, but the 'Big Brother' question looms: isn't this essentially the collection of a lot more information about individuals? This threat seems currently to be remote, as the road sensors are currently completely unconnected with the actual parking meters which link to actual drivers and their details. The sensor knows a vehicle is there, but not its identity. Of course, like all things, this could change in the future.

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August 2017