Algorithmic Regulation Spreading Across Government?

I was very, very excited to learn that the City of Vancouver is exploring implementing a program started in San Francisco in which “smart” parking meters adjust their price to reflect supply and demand (story is here in the Vancouver Sun).

For those unfamiliar with the program, here is a breakdown. In San Francisco, the city has the goal of ensuring at least one free parking spot is available on every block in the downtown core. As I learned during the San Fran’s presentation at the Code for America summit, such a goal has several important consequences. Specifically, it reduces the likelihood of people double parking, reduces smog and greenhouse gas emissions as people don’t troll for parking as long and because trolling time is reduced, people searching for parking don’t slow down other traffic and buses as they drive around slowly looking for a spot. In short, it has a very helpful impact on traffic more broadly.

So how does it work? The city’s smart parking meters are networked together and constantly assess how many spots on a given block are free. If, at the end of the week, it turns out that all the spaces are frequently in use, the cost of parking on that block is increased by 25 cents. Conversely if many of the spots were free, the price is reduced by 25 cents. Generally, each block finds an equilibrium point where the cost meets the demand but is also able to adjust in reaction to changing trends.

Technologist Tim O’Reilly has referred to these types of automated systems in the government context as “algorithmic regulation” – a phrase I think could become more popular over the coming decade. As software is deployed into more and more systems, the algorithms will be creating market places and resource allocation systems – in effect regulating us. A little over a year ago I said that contrary to what many open data advocates believe, open data will make data political – e.g. that open data wasn’t going to depoliticize public policy and make it purely evidenced base, quite the opposite, it will make the choices around what data we collect more contested (Canadians, think long form census). The same is also – and already – true of the algorithms, the code, that will increasingly regulate our lives. Code is political.

Personally I think the smart parking meter plan is exciting and hope the city will consider it seriously, but be prepared, I’m confident that much like smart electrical meters, an army of naysayers will emerge who simply don’t want a public resource (roads and parking spaces) to be efficiently used.

It’s like the Spirit of the West said: Everything is so political.

3 thoughts on “Algorithmic Regulation Spreading Across Government?

  1. Geoffrey Wiseman

    Do they factor in time-of-day at all? I know lots of areas where parking at some times of day is impossible to find but at other times of day, it’s fairly empty. Would be nice to encourage people to visit the area when parking’s easy by reducing prices while still charging appropriate to high demand at high-demand parts of the day.

    Reply
    1. David Eaves

      Geoffrey,

      Great question. I think at the moment, the answer is no (although there may be free parking after a certain hour) but the capability to do more precise or even real time adjustment to parking fees is built into the system.

      It also seems as though the system is working – at least from a revenue perspective – more revenue from fees, less from fines according to this article.

      Reply
  2. Pingback: Thoughts on algorithmic regulation – The Aust Gate

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