Nick Powell

Sifting through city data to find legal parking spots

May 12, 2016  |


As a New York City motorist, I know all too well the gnawing populist aggravation that is alternate side parking. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, the reasonable parking radius dictates that I move my car at least three times a week – every block is either a Monday-Thursday spot or a Tuesday-Friday spot.

Every time I circle the neighborhood in search of the elusive parking space, I pass by a seemingly vacant spot, on Caton Avenue off of the corner of Parade Place. Like clockwork, I get my hopes up every time I approach the spot, but when I see the prohibitive pedestrian ramp, I let fly a string of vulgarities that would have made George Carlin blush.

So when I read Ben Wellington’s terrific article on his IQuantNY blog that this spot on Caton Avenue was one of many that the NYPD had wrongly ticketed for years, costing taxpayers millions of dollars (parking next to a pedestrian ramp is illegal only if there is a crosswalk), I praised the data gods for blessing me with a new potential parking spot.

Wellington is a quantitative analyst at a tech company called Two Sigma and a visiting assistant professor in the City and Regional Planning program at the Pratt Institute, who started his blog as a way to use data sets to empower government and citizens to make the city better.

I decided to interview (and thank) Wellington about his parking spot story, and his experience using the city’s Open Data portal.

The following is an edited transcript.

Nick Powell: I was flabbergasted when I read your piece, as I have been a city motorist for eight years now and never knew I could park by a pedestrian ramp. How did you get ahold of that information?

Ben Wellington: Parking on the street in New York is no easy feat, and as I’ve been finding my way around parking spots I’ve just gotten to know the rules pretty well. I don’t know when exactly I figured that out, but it has created spots around the city that people don’t realize are maybe legal, so that’s always a good thing to know when you’re looking for a parking spot.

NP: You mentioned in your article that you had frequently parked in those spots and had been ticketed several times. Did that inspire you to look at the data for pedestrian ramp tickets?

BW: Not too frequently, but for over a year, certainly I’ve been ticketed many times. Enough that I recognized a pattern that wasn’t just a one-off.

I’ve more broadly spent the last year or two studying New York City’s data sets and looking for ways to make the city run better. When I saw this, it was less a personal goal and more a goal to show that with public data you can actually make change. I was inspired by own personal experience, but the work was done more broadly.

NP: You used the city’s Open Data portal to map these pedestrian ramp parking spots. How long did it take to map all of that data?

BW: Not long. In the end, you can write some quick code to count the number of tickets at each address and run it through something called a geo-coder, which takes an address and puts longitude and latitude with it. It wasn’t too long of a process, it wasn’t done manually or anything.

NP: I’m something of a tech layman, so that process sounds somewhat complicated to me. Would you have to have a tech background to truly analyze and map the parking data like you did?

BW: I think we’re just starting to see the tools work their way down to the point where anybody can do this kind of thing. We’re not quite there yet. The Open Data portals that governments are putting out, they’re trying to make them more user-friendly to allow things like mapping on a large scale. For the moment, you definitely need a little tech savviness to get the job done.

NP: The NYPD’s response to your article was astonishing, mainly because they are a department that does not typically respond well to job criticism. Were you surprised at their response, and do you expect to follow up and make sure they hold to their promise of making sure their officers know the parking rules?

BW: I was incredibly surprised because over the last several years, as I’ve made discoveries on things like health inspection scores in New York, or taxi tipping, the various government responses have been less than gratifying. Rarely did they address the issue head-on. I was frankly taken aback by them saying, “You know what? There is a mistake and we’re going to fix it.” The idea that working with citizens who find mistakes can be positive is still new. There’s a cultural shift there. Do they walk away embarrassed or do they walk away with their heads high because they’re utilizing citizens to make government run better? I would argue that if you put data out there and someone helps you do your job in a more efficient manner, you are a winner in that situation, and not a loser.

NP: On your blog, do you focus mostly on these populist data-driven issues such as parking, or do you look at anything that’s somewhat easily quantified?

BW: It’s a mix. Sometimes I have an idea about the city, and I want to go test it using data so I have to find the appropriate data to do that. Some of it is more playful, like I found the person that lives farthest from a Starbucks, or the best place to watch illegal fireworks by looking at 311 illegal fireworks complaints. Some of it is more tongue-in-cheek, others are more serious, like studying crime, showing parking problems, travel issues, things like that.  

NP: What inspired you to start this blog? Was it something connected to your professional life?

BW: I’m an analyst at a technological company called Two Sigma, where I’ve been working with data for the last seven or eight years. And I married an urban planner who inspired me and has been my editor sometimes as well. She got me really into city data and that brought me to teaching at Pratt, where I teach students who are urban planners about statistics, and the goal was to make statistics fun; I wanted to make it applicable for them. So I started analyzing these data sets so that they would have good homework assignments, and what I found was maybe more exciting than homework assignments, so I started the blog.

Today we teach students made-up problems in made-up textbooks, which, in my mind, is outrageous. So I changed the course to look at real problems in the city that they’re studying in. If you’re going to learn about statistics, at least you’re applying it to your field.

NP: You used the city’s Open Data portal, which is a relatively new commitment to transparency started by Bloomberg and continued by de Blasio. What is the main thing that you think needs to be improved in how we consume this data and how it’s conveyed to the public?

BW: Interacting with city agencies is not trivial today; there’s no pathway for somebody who has something to tell an agency to even reach them and tell them. In my case, I was fortunate to have a relationship with the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics, so that’s what helped me make the connection to the NYPD. But we need to open up the channels of communication so that anyone can interact with agencies using data-driven techniques.

The data today is sort of dumped onto a site and it’s considered a win. But there’s no owner that is responsible that people can react to. An example is the parking ticket data: there are many parking tickets that are in the database twice, just because somebody made an error when creating the data set. I, as a citizen, have no way of telling the government their data is broken, thus it stays like that for years.

The biggest improvement would be accountability on each data set with an owner and a way to reach that owner so we can get fixes published as they’re identified.

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