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Ann Arbor Smackdown
March 16, 2009 1:57 PM   Subscribe

There's a showdown in Ann Arbor, MI between geeks and suits. It starts when local public tax-funded parking garages start posting the number of available spaces on their site. A few geeks decide to make it more useful while driving so they code up some asterisk hacks to scrape the page and bridge the web content to a phone and presto! you can call to hear which garages have the most spaces available for parking. Not so fast says the city and they shut down access to the site from the app and stop publishing real-time stats (mostly grumbling about a loss of "control"). Geeks are in an uproar (mostly trying to teach the suits what "public domain data" means). This long ass blog post tells the entire tale from both sides of the fight.
posted by mathowie (55 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
I forgot to mention the geeks have been using twitter to vent.
posted by mathowie at 1:58 PM on March 16, 2009


I can't imagine why they'd care enough to block it. What's the point?
posted by leotrotsky at 1:59 PM on March 16, 2009


<--- future Ann Arbor resident as of this May
posted by leotrotsky at 1:59 PM on March 16, 2009


... what's the point?

Suits ... control ...
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:01 PM on March 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


God, I hate suits.

And the people who wear them.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 2:09 PM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


mathowie: "I forgot to mention the geeks have been using twitter to vent."

The suits must be panicking now!
posted by Joe Beese at 2:09 PM on March 16, 2009 [6 favorites]


Weird, because Ann Arbor's transit agency is willing to give its route & schedule data to third parties. So take the bus and don't worry about parking spots.
posted by GuyZero at 2:11 PM on March 16, 2009


I forgot to mention the geeks have been using twitter to vent.

I missed it as I had been searching using the #impotentoutrage tag.
posted by GuyZero at 2:12 PM on March 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


Sounds like some of the suits' concern is that you have to call a toll number to get the udpates. They're contending that these guys are making money off of data that they're providing -- maybe they just want to get a cut.
posted by JohnFredra at 2:13 PM on March 16, 2009


Reading the L.A.B.P. what I can't figure out is that ...aren't technology companies members of groups like the CoC? It's not as though 'geeks' exist in an independent autonomous universe from the 'suits'. They're all people, just with conflicting &/or misinformed worldviews.

I mean, it seems like every time some interesting use of existing data comes up, the same objections are raised:

1. we can't assure the accuracy of the information provided by a 3rd party
2. this will undermine our credibility and our ability to serve the public
etc...

You would think that informed and influential were not mutually exclusive conditions.
posted by leotrotsky at 2:14 PM on March 16, 2009


that blog post is so long and so excruciatingly geekishly written I can't believe it's not set in 5pt courier.
posted by krautland at 2:17 PM on March 16, 2009


You meant "-5 points for not being set in 5 point Courier".
posted by GuyZero at 2:18 PM on March 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


Can we fast forward to the part where Ogre Palowakski hoists somebody off the ground by their underpants?
posted by mhoye at 2:18 PM on March 16, 2009


Who gives a shitter about Twitter?

/not me
posted by autodidact at 2:25 PM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Where do geeks in suits stand on this matter?
posted by dersins at 2:25 PM on March 16, 2009


Who gives a shitter shittr about Twitter Twittr?

This guy.
posted by dersins at 2:27 PM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I prefer biking in Ann Arbor since parking downtown is heinous. But anything that smoothes traffic around the parking structure makes my riding safer, so I loved the third-party hacks. It's appalling that the proposed replacement service is a human telephone operator, replacing a volunteer service with an inferior one at taxpayer expense.

On the whole, I'd blame Republic Parking, the company contracted by the city to manage the lots, since most of the city's assertions of control have been on Republic's behalf.
posted by ardgedee at 2:28 PM on March 16, 2009


So, I'm reading the friendly article and this word pops out at me: posthuman.

Personally, if I want to talk to people about technology, I ask myself, "Have I heard them mention a Greg Egan novel? Do they know what Alcor is all about?" If the answer is probably no, I don't bring up words like posthuman or Singularity. That stays in the bag. The "they just don't get it!" nerdrage and the cussing is insignificant as compared to using, well, sci-fi terminology when the folks you're trying to convince probably don't know what you mean by "grep."

When you put this stuff up on the net, just presume that some bright intern at the Chamber of Commerce can at least pull up the article when the aforementioned suits say, "What are they saying about this [me] on the Intarblogs?" I get it, we're marching towards a science fiction future, I'm with you ... but no amount of "They’re good people" is going to fix the complete turnoff generated by weird jargon.

Yes, this is a fantastic idea. Sure, this is public domain information. Yeah, the suits are being dumb about it. However, whipping out posthuman in any kind of response piece is like showing up to a debate about network neutrality wearing a Tron outfit and whipping glow in the dark frisbees pumped by UV-emitting LEDs at the moderator. Nobody will hear you after that.
posted by adipocere at 2:29 PM on March 16, 2009 [20 favorites]


Huh. After struggling through the links (the "long-ass blog post" is nigh-on unreadable, because of both page layout and an incredibly unfocused writing style), I found this:

4) persons interested in finding out about parking structure vacancies must make a toll-call out of state.

a) I'm kind of with them on that and
b) a "phone call??" I, the user, have to make a phone call? Not a website? not an app for my smartphone? Not a text? Not a post to 2009-official-easy-target-for-lazy-people(tm) Twitter? This would be a perfect use for it, actually.

That's some very 1983 geekery, is all I'm saying.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:29 PM on March 16, 2009


ass blog indeed!
posted by Mister_A at 2:31 PM on March 16, 2009


> b) a "phone call??" I, the user, have to make a phone call? Not a website? not an app for my smartphone? Not a text? Not a post to 2009-official-easy-target-for-lazy-people(tm) Twitter? This would be a perfect use for it, actually.

Not everybody has smart phones. And the idea was that listening to a phone while driving is safer than reading a screen.

The first phone number was out-of-area. They moved to a local number once they were able to.
posted by ardgedee at 2:38 PM on March 16, 2009


The first phone number was out-of-area

I'm still not sure why this matters. People have landlines with long-distance charges installed in their cars?
posted by dersins at 2:42 PM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


adipocere: "Personally, if I want to talk to people about technology, I ask myself, "Have I heard them mention a Greg Egan novel? Do they know what Alcor is all about?""

I'm marking today on my calendar. I'm not sure what to mark it, but it's gotta be marked something.
posted by Plutor at 2:43 PM on March 16, 2009


"Reading the L.A.B.P. what I can't figure out is that ...aren't technology companies members of groups like the CoC? It's not as though 'geeks' exist in an independent autonomous universe from the 'suits'. They're all people, just with conflicting &/or misinformed worldviews."

Hey, man, jocks or freaks: pick a side, and see you on the playground after school.
posted by krinklyfig at 2:46 PM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is what you get from the Downtown Development Authority in Ann Arbor. The DDA lives in some sort of fanciful world where everyone rides a bike to downtown during the Michigan winters, unaffordable yuppie lofts are suitable housing for average people, and purchashing the old YMCA was a great investment.

I park in the Maynard St. structure every night and I claim that the posted number of spaces aren't accurate enough to be even worth reporting. Theoretically each structure can accommodate x cars, but by the time you count the number of people in Hummers that take up two spaces, people who take up two spaces parking all cock-eyed, and spaces that are so small that only Ford Festivas can park in them, you are left with about 0.8x at best. Additionally when the structures reach about 70% capacity they become so congested that it can easily take an hour to enter or exit the structure. All of this is to say that the parking number data is not really actionable data, and maybe it shouldn't be reported at all. This really just seems like a tempest in a tea pot to me.
posted by kscottz at 2:47 PM on March 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Mathowie, this tea is not nearly strong enough! I demand a teapot with more tempest!
posted by killdevil at 2:49 PM on March 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


Information wants to be free to be paid for!
posted by Artw at 2:49 PM on March 16, 2009


I made it through the blog post and the other voip one. i smiled at the Shirky drop (thanks mefi), liked the rambling writing style, but for all of this person's efforts to convey the 'two world' perspective ('geeks and suits' ... Garlic bread? Garlic Bread?) it is still not clear why the 'suits' denied access to the information. If the voip chat link post is to be believed, the toll number was a stop gap workaround that has since been changed up, and even if it had remained that way, so what? The 'geeks' made strong points in reponse, and seem to expose a deeply irrational urge on the part of the CoC. Viva 'the deep coherence of information'!
posted by rudster at 2:55 PM on March 16, 2009


I can't grok this. Maybe I need more whuffie.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:56 PM on March 16, 2009 [6 favorites]


This was cool and geeky. We want a cool and geeky town, and this was a good step. +2 points for transparency, and for actually experimenting.
this is the thing for me. so often, suits are just too chickenshit to ever try anything new. who gives a fuck? just dump the data and see what shakes out. if someone does something cool, give 'em a job. if traffic is too high, limit the hits-per-user-per-day, and everyone's happy.
posted by klanawa at 2:59 PM on March 16, 2009


that blog post is so long and so excruciatingly geekishly written I can't believe it's not set in 5pt courier. is incoherent.
posted by marxchivist at 3:03 PM on March 16, 2009


A similar thing happened in Sydney with an iphone app that provided train timetables.

Ars Technica has the story.

Surely these things are about money. So many places have poor websites for train time information that people are looking at and providing better interfaces to. But the people who own the information want a cut. These things can be resolved, as is shown in the Sydney case.

Indeed, it may be cheaper for these services to see what the market comes up with and then do a deal than to pay some consultant to come up with something.
posted by sien at 3:03 PM on March 16, 2009


"Indeed, it may be cheaper for these services to see what the market comes up with and then do a deal than to pay some consultant to come up with something."

That's what the DDA and other similar entities are having a hard time figuring out. All they need to do is provide raw data as a public service, sort of like the NOAA, and other people will provide the services. It's dirt cheap from their standpoint, cheaper than hiring a consultant and/or development team, and the geeks are happy geeking around and providing interfaces for this data on their own dime and their own time. If someone makes money (as in televised weather forecasts, which rely in part on NOAA data), as long as it doesn't put a drain on resources to provide the data, then no problem, as the data itself is still free to anyone.
posted by krinklyfig at 3:12 PM on March 16, 2009


So, wait. It's 2009, right.

The suits that the suits wear these days are usually cut and designed by the machines that the geeks program. The phone that the suit carries in his or her suit was also invented and programmed by a geek. As is the computer in the car they drive, the computer that designed the car that they drive, and of course - the computer that the suit uses to order the suits they wear, phones they carry and cars they drive. Heck, even their microwaves and TVs have computers in them now. Even disposable battery powered shaving razors have computers in them.

I'm increasingly confounded as to why there's even a problem at all.

The easiest solution would be to start making shirt collars too small, and then smaller, and smaller to the point of asphyxiation but this hack lacks style and assumes that the suits even know how to properly button a collar or dress themselves. And while it is well known that true geeks are able to cause computers and cell phones to explode into showers of sparks with a simple command line string, this too lacks style.

The obvious stylish hack would be to start developing smart fabric. Smart smart fabric, if you can dig it, suitable for suiting. Within a year we could have every suit in one of our suits. Each suit is made of fabric that is not only solar powered but it also has a computer and a wireless transceiver embedded every few square inches in the fabric. This makes a mesh network with other smart suits. Nitinol wiring embedded into the fabric provides actuator and binding forces to the suit in the suit, facilitating programmable locomotion and process control.

After assuring market saturation of our smart suits a pre-determined moment of time is chosen. At this time a very small script is run. At that exact moment several million useless suits stand up and are walked to the nearest suit re-education center. For much of the United States this will be the nearest ocean. For others the nearest body of water deep enough for drowning will work just fine. For other regions lacking such bodies of water, the nearest coal-fired power plant will be suitable, as will any blast furnace or trash incinerator. If none of these options are suitable the suits will be guided to the nearest Hostess discount bakery outlet where they will staple numerous snack cakes to themselves and march into the nearest pre-school or kindergarten while thread-like Piezoelectric speakers will announce the availability of free snacks and confirm the utmost need to hurry and panic before they are gone.


I bet there are some suits out there, right now, that think that I'm just kidding. I wish to assure you that I am not. There's a reason why your coder or development team keeps hiding their work from you, and while it has everything to do with you being an ignoramous, pest or generic pointy-haired suit in a suit, it has nothing at all to do with your lack of ability to inspect code nor your ability to watch a Gantt chart.

Also, not wearing a suit won't change the fact that you're a suit - the fact that you're a suit makes you a suit. These fabrics will be suitable for integration in a variety of styles of clothing, including that terrible "casual wear" crap you're all so fond of buying from glossy catalogs.


What do you mean I have to wait until 2012? I don't know if I can wait that long. Hurry!
posted by loquacious at 3:24 PM on March 16, 2009 [9 favorites]


ArborUpdate had this first.

My guess is that, knowing Republic Parking, they're the source of the shitstorm, since they're low-bid fuckers for whom running regular parking garages is beyond their level of sophistication. I can only imagine that they're seeing this as somehow sending robot zombies to kill them.

Or, the alternate explanation is one based off of Art's above: They know the data is bad. But as long as it's only going to the DDA (which pays for it, I'd assume, either directly or indirectly), it doesn't matter. DDA gets shit data and does flawed planning, no skin off Republic. But if folks start being discouraged from parking based on shit data, that comes out of Republic's pocket.
posted by klangklangston at 3:34 PM on March 16, 2009


Oh, and of note regarding the AU thread, Larry Kestenbaum is the city's clerk (and a pretty cool geek himself). Which means that the head elected geek of Ann Arbor is against this, which will carry more weight than 1000 tittering twitter tweets.
posted by klangklangston at 3:37 PM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


You can't go around doing cool stuff willy nilly, we have to manage expectations. People will expect other cool stuff. Have you thought about that, about the implications?
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:51 PM on March 16, 2009 [5 favorites]


Why should someone make money off public data or providing a public service if it can be done voluntarily and is efficiently automated? I’m not a big fan of information disparity when the information is supposed to be public in the first place. What the hell is technology for if not to make our lives easier in exactly this manner?

“However, whipping out posthuman in any kind of response piece is like showing up to a debate about network neutrality wearing a Tron outfit and whipping glow in the dark frisbees pumped by UV-emitting LEDs at the moderator. Nobody will hear you after that.”

It’s ok to wear the Tron outfit and whip out glow in the dark things elsewhere though, right? I mean, we’re not, heh, peaking in people’s windows or anything here, ok? I ask purely for information. About a, uh, friend of mine.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:53 PM on March 16, 2009


Sounds like some of the suits' concern is that you have to call a toll number to get the udpates.

4) persons interested in finding out about parking structure vacancies must make a toll-call out of state. a) I'm kind of with them on that...

They're mistaken (as per the fifth hyperlink in the FPP):
"Wrong. At one point, I had this project linked to a 212 number. Why? Because I could support unlimited callers at that number. I did this at a cost of 1.5 cents per minute from my pocket. It took me two weeks, but we received a local Ann Arbor number capable of having more than 2 simultaneous calls. So for a brief 10 day period, you needed to dial 212. Then you could dial 734. We released this information online, over the radio, and to newspapers… So basically, since January 20th, you’re wrong (and we really didn’t make this live until January 10th)....So, not only is there a local number, it shouldn’t matter if there wasn’t. I truly see implementing a Detroit number, maybe Toledo, Grand Rapids… and more. Could you imagine the possibility of people from another area calling a local number (for them) to visit Ann Arbor? I can… and wow, that would be great."
posted by ericb at 4:02 PM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


> Larry Kestenbaum is the city's clerk (and a pretty cool geek himself).

Affirmative on both counts. And Kestenbaum is a regular at the weekly A2B3 geek social that Ed Vielmetti organizes. And Ed is one of the guys involved in the data scraping and phone hack. This is one of the upsides to living in a small town: Somebody in your community bowls with the right people, whoever those right people might be at the time.
posted by ardgedee at 4:06 PM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Klangklangston, more likely, Republic Parking sees this service and says to themselves, "Hey, if we provided that service, we'd bill the city. Therefore, this free service is taking money out of our pockets!"

In short, Republic Parking wants to be paid to implement the service the geeks created for free.

Republic Parking's contract with the city likely gives them monopoly control over city public parking operations. Also, the collected data is probably owned by Republic Parking, with the city merely having a non-exclusive, non-transferrable license. Vendors will negotiate terms like these create a barrier to entry for other vendors seeking to compete. Cities accept these terms in exchange for small price breaks.
posted by ryanrs at 4:09 PM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Once you understand that Republic Parking sees the free service as some sort of competitive threat, you begin to understand why they're making such a big deal about trivial stuff like the out-of-area phone number.

Republic Parking's contract with the city likely requires that they have a local or toll-free number for customer service. So they see that 212 number and say "Ah ha! You're breaking rules that we have to follow. Unfair, unfair!"
posted by ryanrs at 4:17 PM on March 16, 2009


Well, the contract with Republic should be public info, so if someone wants to drop a FOIA, we can all take a look at what kind of data licensing they have going…
posted by klangklangston at 4:21 PM on March 16, 2009


There's a showdown in Ann Arbor, MI between geeks and suits. It starts when local public tax-funded parking garages

and the attendant in the booth is laughing at everybody.
posted by jonmc at 4:21 PM on March 16, 2009


Oh yeah, and Republic Parking likely also gets a fee for handling customer calls, hence the suggestion to call their office for parking availability info.
posted by ryanrs at 4:28 PM on March 16, 2009


Ann Arbor is overrated.
posted by gyc at 5:22 PM on March 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


@loquacious - I was at a coal-fired power plant a couple of weeks ago. The suits would first be ground up into a fine mush (I presume they'd still be 'wet') and then injected into the boiler furnaces. Not a very pleasant way to go.
posted by lowlife at 5:26 PM on March 16, 2009


Parking spots available over the web. Posthumanity is here.
posted by DU at 5:34 PM on March 16, 2009


Not a very pleasant way to go.

Neither is death by Pinto, tire-failure induced vehicle roll-over, death from false-study prescription drugs, pollution, mismanagement or myriad other ways incompetence can kill people. I said useless suits, didn't I?

Anyway, that's more than enough Fight Club angst in a thread about a small kerfuffle over parking structure metadata.
posted by loquacious at 5:53 PM on March 16, 2009


So Ann Arbor has proven that it can have a tempest in a teapot as ridiculous as those that occur on a daily basis in Berkeley. Whoo-hoo.
posted by blucevalo at 6:23 PM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Herb: "There's a lot more going on around here, Les, than you realize. The whole world is in revolution, and not just here, but everywhere. And you know who's at war?"

Les Nessman: "No..."

Herb: "It's the dungarees versus the suits, Les. The whole world is in two armed camps, over here we have the dungarees, and over here the suits. Remember the riots in the 60s? It was the dungarees versus the suits. And then Watergate, those guys arrested were wearing dungarees and who suffered for it?"

Les: "The suits!"

Herb: "Exactly!"

Les: "But there were, issues, Herb."

Herb: "The issues, Les, were a smokescreen. Now listen. When a son disobeys his father, what's he wearing?"

Les: "The son? Um... dungarees!"

Herb: "And what's the father got on?"

Les: "Probably a suit!"

Herb: "Do you see what I mean, Les?"
posted by DecemberBoy at 8:23 PM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Hi, I'm Edward Vielmetti and I organize lunch. My lunch group built this application so that we could get to our favorite restaurant downtown and never have to worry about parking - when you get 20-30 people for lunch every single week, some driving in from 60-70 miles away, you have to address that question.

I'm incredulous that the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority would block this information about parking availability from customers of businesses which are in its tax area. I looked really hard at the state law under which they are chartered, and I'm baffled that there could be any possible reason not to encourage new product development, especially the sort of new product that could be provided or sold to other organizations around the world. After all, if you take pride in the notion that you are a creative city with a creative class, then perhaps you should not be so surprised when someone actually creates something that you did not think up yourself.

I hope it's a teachable moment and an opportunity to excel for someone.

More info on my blog.
posted by edwardvielmetti at 10:37 PM on March 16, 2009 [7 favorites]


So now we have posthumous parking? For cars, not just corpses?


We're gonna need more garages.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:09 AM on March 17, 2009


sien, I remember being surprised at the Sydney transit story, because I've got an app on my iPhone that does a pretty good job with Perth trains and buses, and that info is government-provided too. Lucky too, because the Transperth website is crap. You'd think if sleepy little Perth can manage it, the Sydney transit dudes could too. Sounds like RailCorp is just being precious.
posted by harriet vane at 2:20 AM on March 17, 2009


So take the bus and don't worry about parking spots.

Ahahahahaha. I wish! I mean, I did when I lived there. Unfortunately, Ann Arbor continues to be located in Michigan, where public transit is epically unuseful.
posted by clavicle at 8:36 AM on March 17, 2009


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