The Mechanized City

I just left a meeting at the place I work, City of Iowa City Parking Department. The management of the department and of the city have been planning for future developments to improve the downtown area, some of which will eventually alter my job. It’s interesting to see the functioning of government from a slightly inside perspective.

Being a liberal city, the government here is very obsessed about such things as transparency and providing optimal services. There is some bureaucracy involved, but not as much since it’s a smaller population, not even large by Iowa standards. Also, surprising to some people, I’ve observed how Parking management doesn’t seem overly focused on profit-making, despite Parking being the only department that actually makes a profit. Everything is about serving the public. They take their role as civil servants very seriously.

(Although not focused on the profit of the parking department, they are focused on overall tax revenue. So, the ‘public’ in question particularly includes anyone involved in the downtown economy. The downtown business association — going by a different name these days — is directly involved in such city decisions. As such, the city is very focused on the profit of downtown businesses and thus the happiness of prospective customers.)

I’ve wondered about some of the recent changes, as I get to see much of it firsthand with my job. I’m a parking ramp cashier. I started out working in an empty lot that had no ticket spitter or even gates. Everything was done manually and it was a bit chaotic. Over the years, they keep adding new elements to parking such as building new ramps and now putting in self-pay stations. Eventually, my job will be replaced by what they call and ambassador position which then be my new job. Being an ambassador means I won’t be stuck in a booth and my job description will involve more customer service of the ambulatory variety, i.e., going to the customers when they have problems and generally being out and about doing what needs to be done.

They’ve invested massive amounts of money into technology. Along with self-pay stations, they have cameras everywhere and they are looking into various other possibilities: new meter systems with more options such as paying by smartphone, license plate reading machines, etc. One idea is that they might save money in the long run because they’ve let recidivism decrease the number of employees, but I doubt that can be a very central goal since they are spending such a vast amount of money in the process. I suspect they could run the parking department very cheaply with almost no technology at all.

It’s not really about money. It’s about information. Technology means data can be collected, stored, organized, and analyzed. Also, it is data that can be provided to the public as part of the services offered such as maps showing where open parking is at any moment or where a bus is at any moment.

The future is all about information. It’s not data for the sake of data as might be seen in the bureaucracy of a more authoritarian government. It’s all data with a specific purpose, the idea of a smoothly running machine, an entire city mechanized. Some might find that disturbing, maybe even dystopian. As for me, I’m just a curious observer.

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