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Local Transportation Entity Looked Within to Build Alert Solution

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency was able to work from previous successes in creating a tool that would help motorists avoid being towed.

A red car on a red tow truck.
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When officials decided last year to act on a significant area of need among motorists in one Bay Area city, technologists were able to stand up a solution without a procurement — significantly quickening their process.

The issue for residents and community-based organizations in San Francisco was having vehicles towed. It’s always an expensive prospect — and reclaiming a car or truck can be a labyrinthine quest for the uninitiated. In the consolidated city-county of San Francisco, getting towed can cost more than $500 — plus storage fees of around $50 or more per day, Anne Stuhldreher, director of financial justice in the Office of the Treasurer at San Francisco, told Techwire. While discounts exist, she said, when The Financial Justice Project began its work, “something like 10 percent of cars were never retrieved because — you can presume because people couldn’t afford that.” Among the takeaways:

  • The project, Stuhldreher said, was “like a lot of good ideas” in that many people and entities were contemplating something similar simultaneously, including the Stop Poverty Tows Coalition; and the idea found strong support from then-new SFMTA board member Manny Yekutiel. “I know that these community groups put it forward, and then I think at (the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency) SFMTA there was a lot of openness, from the board, from the leadership, from all sorts of people. These guys really figured out how to do it,” she said.
  • The result, released in mid-January, was “Text Before Tow,” a program that is the first of its kind. It enables residents to register their vehicle’s license plate number and telephone number; and, in four common towing situations, get a text alerting them their vehicle will be towed unless they move it immediately. Once enrolled, residents will get an SMS message when a parking control officer has begun the process of having their vehicle towed. This will happen in four instances: vehicles parked longer than 72 hours, signifying potential abandonment; parked blocking a driveway; parked in a construction zone; or parked in a temporary no-parking zone for special events or moving trucks. Residents who extricate their vehicles from these situations will still receive a citation from the officer — but their vehicles won’t be towed.
  • Standing up the technology to alert residents was made easier by existing relationships and at least two previous products. SFMTA already offered residents subscriptions to real-time and scheduled Muni Alerts for route and line changes, and Elevator Alerts to elevator outages at Metro stations. Workflow was a consideration; staff had to “talk through internally” how that would go, in part to ensure officers were informed and kept safe throughout the process of having residents move their vehicles, Donovan Corliss, SFMTA principal information services engineer, told Techwire. But because SFMTA was an existing Salesforce customer and already used its Service Cloud and Marketing Cloud, the entity was able to utilize Microsoft Azure as a connector to query Salesforce about whether violators were Text Before Tow subscribers. The team also used FormAssembly for its forums and user interface.
    “So, I think several things came together at the right time: there was political leadership, internal managers focused and ready to act and push it through; and then as I said, the technology group, we were mature enough to deal with it, execute internally without having to go out to bid and without having to buy a solution,” Corliss said.
  • Approximately three months after the project’s go-live, it has 10,632 subscribers and has generated 32 SMS messages. The extent to which these have prevented actual vehicle tows isn’t clear — but Corliss said the work has definite value in stimulating government trust.
    “If we can make small contributions in that way, it’s a reminder to the people who work inside of local government ... to find tools that people are suggesting in the community, that people want; and it really ... it benefits people with the good feelings that they have about local government,” he said.
Theo Douglas is Assistant Managing Editor of Industry Insider — California.