Towed in Hartford? Here’s how open data can send you a text message

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After the recent spate of snowstorms, Hartford police got numerous calls from residents about whether their cars had been towed. Hartford officials thought police should be spending time doing police work, and not telling people where their car is — so they put a database of towed cars on the city’s data portal.

“There were quite a few hits in the first few days,” said Brett Flodine, who helps run the Hartford data portal. “We think it got a lot of hits right after a snow storm.”

The dataset includes towed vehicles in the past 30 days, and it’s updated every hour. But if you’re sitting in a meeting, you won’t know to look on the data portal unless you go back to your car and find it missing.

This is the problem Matt Zagaja wanted to solve.

Zagaja, an attorney who is involved in state and municipal politics, built using Hartford’s open data portal. If you sign up with your license plate and phone number, the app will check the database and send you a text message if your car is towed.

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For you technical folks: The data comes from the Hartford Police Department’s 9–1–1 database. It is exported into a text file every hour — and, from there, the data is exported into the portal every hour. There are no plans to run these automated jobs more frequently because, Flordine said, there is a lag in when a car is towed and when an officer inputs the data into the system. “They’re not out in the car typing in the information,” he said.

There has been a lot data analysis using Hartford and Connecticut portals, including many on TrendCT. But there haven’t been many practical tools. Zagaja’s is among the first that we’re hearing of. Flodine said CrimeStoppers pulls in crime data from the portal — but these two are the only ones he knows of.

We caught up with Zagaja to ask him about

What inspired you to make the app?

The app was inspired by my interest in civic hacking and my desire to take the skills I had been learning from online coding tutorials into the real world. I was excited to see the state open data portal along with the Hartford one, and once I saw they had an API, I thought it’d be neat to develop something that worked with it. Most of the datasets in open data portals are interesting for visualization, but lack utility beyond that. When I saw Hartford released this database of towed cars, it jumped out as being something that was more useful. I know many people who have had their cars towed from Hartford, and the idea of getting my car towed scares me, so in a way I built it for myself. I feel better knowing that if I park in the city and get towed while I’m in a meeting all day or visiting a friend’s place that I might get notified before I need my car and thus have more time to deal with the situation.

I also wanted to do something with mobile and text messaging because studies show that wireless-only households are increasing and that more people are using their mobile devices as their primary means to access information. Public health researchers have been concerned about the wireless only trend in conducting telephone surveys but it also has implications for the accessibility of government information and services. If you do not have a desktop computer, or do not have one with you when you need to look up certain information, then the process of using websites designed for desktops can be painful, discouraging, and sometimes useless.

What is the ideal use case of the app?

As far as ideal use case, the lag is currently such that it’s usefulness will be mostly for people whose automobiles are towed while they are in all-day meetings in the city, or they are a resident and have their car removed as the result of some kind of parking ban. There is a few-hour lag between the tow occurring and the data being entered into the database. In a perfect world the tow company would have the opportunity to use the app to alert you before they remove your car so you can move it yourself, or you would at least be alerted to the tow within 15 minutes of it occurring so you can deal with it more quickly.

In the future I hope that I might be able to add features like letting people know if a parking ban is being enacted on a street where their car is currently parked. I also would like to add a feature that would let you quickly locate the parking rules for your current street or location. One time I was in Stamford, and it took me nearly 20 minutes to figure out whether they followed the convention of not enforcing meters at night and on Sundays. It was not on their website or posted on signs, but I finally found it written behind the foggy part of the glass of the meter I was at. I also hope to add other languages so that it is usable for people who do not speak English.

Are you going to look for data trends as you maintain this project?

As far as trends go, I think that some obvious things to look at would include when and where enforcement is occurring. This could help the public better understand what the city cares about when it comes to parking enforcement. It might also provide insight into things like if specific private lots tends to be aggressive in towing. Another interesting data trend is the number of cars registered out of state that are being towed and where they are from. That could give us a window into who is visiting the city.

What do you think?