by Kristin Burnham

How Washington, D.C. Is Using IT to Clean the Streets

Jul 24, 20093 mins
ComplianceData Management

Putting license-plate recognition technology and cameras on street sweepers helps the District of Columbia Department of Public Works, a CIO 100 winner, to get illegally parked cars—along with dirt and grime—off the streets

The District of Columbia had a mess on its hands. Its streets were dirty and illegally parked cars were blocking the city’s fleet of street sweepers from cleaning them up. Faced with an average of 89 illegally parked vehicles per street sweeping route, per day, parking officials were only enforcing regulations for 20 percent of the problem. Meanwhile, 40,000 pounds of oil and grease and 1,200 pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus needed clearing from roadways each month by the department of public works. Residents wanted it taken care of.

“Simply adding more parking enforcement—and the support staff, technology and facilities—wasn’t a cost-effective option,” says Mike Belak, former CIO of the city’s department of public works. “So we asked the question, How can we leverage technology to work smarter?”

Belak, who is now CIO with Metropolitan Regional Information Systems (an online real estate listing service), and his team focused on license-plate recognition technology, choosing products from Affiliated Computer Services and Genetec. By equipping street sweepers with a camera and the license-plate recognition software, they hoped to automate the vehicle-ticketing process and reduce the number of parking offenders so street sweepers could operate more efficiently to produce cleaner and environmentally healthy neighborhoods. The project, dubbed “Sweepercam,” earned a 2009 CIO 100 award.

To learn more about the DC Dept. of Public Works and other CIO 100 winners, click here.

Belak and his team first researched whether and how other cities were leveraging this technology. They learned that Chicago was rolling out a similar project, and connected with Chicago’s Fleet Management department. “We talked about their results, best practices and how we could work together to share the knowledge,” Belak says. Belak was even able to piggyback on Chicago’s contract.

Belak’s team then went ahead with a four-month trial of the system. After the trial period, they equipped 12 street sweepers with a computer and two cameras—one mounted inside the street sweeper that displays the cars in the context of the neighborhood and another outside that focuses in on the license plates. The computer collects the information from the street sweeper, matches it with the motor vehicle registration and driver records, and generates a parking violation. To ensure the violation is valid, a contractor with ACS performs a review, weeding out mistakes. The valid violations are routed to a parking control officer, who determines if a ticket should be issued.

In order to educate the public about the new parking enforcement process, the DPW implemented a warning program during which they ran the new enforcement system but did not issue tickets. Instead, the DPW sent notices to motorists informing them that they were parked illegally, educating them on the environmental benefits of street sweeping and instructing them on how to avoid getting a ticket in the future. During that test period, results showed that parking offenses dropped by 80 percent, Belak says.

The Sweepercam project officially launched in March, and Belak says the results have been impressive. The city has realized a 500 percent improvement in parking enforcement, and officials expect to achieve a return from their investment between October and next March. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is also considering extending the project to city buses to cut back on illegally parked cars in bus lanes.

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