How APCOA is using big data to reinvent car parks | Computer Weekly

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Car parks could quickly turn out to be a go-to vacation spot for charging electrical autos, accumulating on-line procuring packages and catching up with emails.

Trials beginning this 12 months will provide drivers workplace pods to work in whereas they cost their vehicles, together with pop-up retailers and workplace house for startups.

Drivers will probably be in a position to ebook and pay for his or her parking areas and battery top-ups using a cell phone app or by way of their car’s infotainment system.

Excessive-tech car parks like this, generally known as mobility hubs, are the imaginative and prescient of Kim Challis, regional managing director at APCOA Parking (UK), a standard car park operator that is reinventing itself as a know-how firm.

Mobility hubs are designed to deliver advantages to native communities and to assist car park house owners take advantage of the areas they’ve, she says.

“It ranges from easy issues like electrical automobile charging or using car parks for cycle parking. We are able to put in lockers so corporations like Amazon and InPost don’t have to drive to each particular person residence, they’ll simply drop off on the car parks,” she provides.

APCOA’s roots return to 1949, when two businessmen based the Airport Parking Firm of America. The enterprise has been by way of a number of restructures through the years, and right this moment offers car parking companies in 13 nations throughout Europe, underneath the possession of Centerbridge, a non-public funding firm.

APCOA’s enterprise mannequin is to bid for contracts to handle car parks for hospitals, airports and personal corporations. It additionally manages on-street parking and parking enforcement for native authorities, together with cameras on visitors lights and field junctions.

Parking is a low-margin enterprise. It’s additionally extremely aggressive as car park operators bid in opposition to one another to win tenders to handle car parks. That competitors has intensified over the previous three years as operators face new high-tech rivals.

A brand new era of know-how corporations, resembling RingGo and PayByPhone, which supply car parking fee and reserving apps, are seeing alternatives to handle and run their very own car parks.

On the identical time, conventional car parking corporations have begun to develop their very own parking apps and analytics know-how. APCOA is itself part-way by way of a undertaking to remodel from a standard car parking firm to a high-tech operation.

City mobility hubs will provide electrical automobile charging, Wi-Fi entry and parking for bikes

The turning level got here in 2015 when certainly one of APCOA’s rivals, CP Plus, purchased Ranger Companies, an organization APCOA relied on for computerized quantity plate recognition (ANPR) know-how.

APCOA discovered itself more and more competing with the corporate that now provided APCOA’s ANPR companies for a similar contracts using the identical ANPR know-how. “We knew we weren’t going to be aggressive if we had been making use of for contracts counting on a 3rd social gathering,” says Challis.

In 2017, Challis requested Stephen Rickett, APCOA’s head of IT, to tackle a brand new position as director of innovation and know-how with a remit to rethink APCOA’s enterprise.

With extra car park tenders specifying computerized quantity plate recognition, APCOA realised it wanted to develop its personal parking know-how, says Rickett. “For me, it was actually about having the ability to handle our priorities,” he says. “We wished to be cheaper, faster and quicker to the market”.

Investing sooner or later

Challis and Rickett proposed to APCOA’s board of administrators that the corporate ought to turn out to be much less reliant on third-party suppliers by growing its personal know-how. That meant constructing a know-how platform that was versatile sufficient to meet the necessities of a number of completely different shoppers, together with unpredictable future calls for.
“We sat down as a gaggle, and as a board, and stated, ‘We’re going to have to make investments. And we’re going to have to put money into know-how that doesn’t simply cater for right this moment, but additionally caters for the subsequent 10 years,” says Challis.

Kim Challis regional managing director UK&I group ESG director APCOA Parking

“We didn’t simply need to replicate Ranger. We wished a extremely clever enterprise engine”

Kim Challis, APCOA

Their imaginative and prescient was to use data from ANPR to generate insights about how car parks are getting used and to discover methods to make them extra worthwhile.
“We didn’t simply need to replicate Ranger,” says Challis. “We wished a extremely clever enterprise engine.”
The second requirement was that APCOA’s parking know-how had to give you the option to join simply with parking kiosks, boundaries and ANPR cameras from a number of suppliers already utilized by APCOA’s shoppers.
“We are able to’t simply rip out a shopper’s present tools as a result of the shopper will instantly really feel like they’ve wasted some huge cash,” says Challis.
Third, the know-how platform wanted to function in a number of languages and a number of currencies, and give you the option to learn quantity plates from a number of nations, within the areas the place APCOA offers parking companies.
Challis says she had constructed up a observe file of at all times delivering what she promised over the three years she had labored for APCOA.
“My fashion is at all times if we’re going to begin one thing, we end it. We don’t simply do it half-heartedly, we do it correctly. And I believe they’d have recognized that,” she says.
The board backed the undertaking.

Bringing improvement residence

Challis and Rickett took a choice early on to develop its personal ANPR software program in-house relatively than to use exterior software program builders and consultants.
Rickett began work on the undertaking with one developer and APCOA’s enterprise specialists in late 2017.
Initially, Rickett constructed a platform at APCOA’s personal datacentre in Slough, using Microsoft’s Web Info Companies internet server and a Microsoft SQL database hosted on digital machines. The location was backed up at a catastrophe restoration website in Harlow.
The primary working demonstration of APCOA’s ANPR system befell in 2018 at a multi-storey car park in Wigan’s Grand Arcade procuring centre. APCOA christened the prototype Parkway, taking the identify from an earlier undertaking that hadn’t acquired off the bottom.
Working with a 3rd social gathering, APCOA had already developed a cashless fee app, generally known as APCOA Join.
The app presents drivers the power to pay parking fees robotically by registering their car quantity plates, or if they like, by sending an SMS message or making a cellphone name. An alternative choice permits drivers to pay for his or her parking up to 24 hours later, which is helpful in car parks close to hospitals the place drivers could have extra urgent issues than paying for parking.
Rickett wished to combine Parkway with its personal parking app, in addition to dozens of different fee kiosks and apps used within the car park business.
He constructed up a group of 5 builders, based mostly in Newcastle, supplemented by two testing specialists and two product builders based mostly in Uxbridge.
The IT group had relied on six offshore builders to combine third-party fee apps and companies into Parkway.
Rickett introduced the work again in-house, changing the six exterior builders with a group of three in-house builders. “I knew I’d get extra effectivity,” he says, regardless of having fewer folks.
The group developed Parkway in phases, including new features every time a buyer requested functions that had been seemingly to show common with different shoppers.
That meant relatively than sitting on a shelf ready for a buyer to purchase it, the software program was at all times getting used, says Challis. “If you happen to had a big hospital that had a particular requirement, we might [expect there were] 10 different hospitals on the market that may most likely take that,” she provides.
It took self-discipline to preserve the concentrate on the unique improvement plan when shoppers and APCOA’s personal groups had been pondering up extra concepts for Parkway, she says.
The product supervisor at all times had the ultimate say no matter whether or not Challis or Rickett thought the software program was prepared. “If the product supervisor was not joyful, it didn’t exit,” she says.

Placing data within the cloud

By 2019, Parkway was rising and wanted extra computing energy to course of extra data. Rickett started an 11-month undertaking to transfer the software program out of APCOA’s personal datacentre and right into a cloud service.
The group appeared briefly at internet hosting Parkway on Amazon Internet Companies (AWS), nevertheless it made extra sense to transfer to Microsoft Azure. APCOA’s group was used to working with Microsoft’s software program and its builders had been already accustomed to Azure from different initiatives.

carparks 3 Urban Mobility Hubs will offer office pods and Wi Fi for making calls or catching up on emails Amazon and InPost delivery lockers CREDIT APCOA Parking
City mobility hubs will provide workplace pods and Wi-Fi for making calls or catching up on emails, together with Amazon and InPost supply lockers

Rickett was clear from the outset the he wished Microsoft to present a platform as a service (PaaS), which might unencumber APCOA’s group to concentrate on growing functions relatively than managing the know-how platform.
The inner group labored in an agile means, constantly growing and updating the code, following the DevOps mannequin. APCOA employed Rackspace to help in migrating Parkway to the cloud. The work was full by mid-2020.
One benefit of using the cloud service is that APCOA can rapidly add new clients to the platform, says Rickett. “We are able to simply add shoppers at a click on of the fingers, and we may be quicker to market due to that,” he says.
APCOA is at present using Parkway to provide parking companies in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, and has plans to deploy Parkway in Italy and Poland.

Cashless kiosks with distant entry

APCOA went on to introduce extra capabilities, together with a “white label” service that allowed clients to add their very own branding and designs to APCOA’s fee know-how.
After a young from a college, APCOA wrote software program to exempt supply drivers from paying parking fees within the college car park.
It has developed the idea additional to permit any person of the software program to exempt their very own employees, taxis and different autos from paying fees.

Stephen Rickett director of Innovation and technology APCOA Parking

“We had a imaginative and prescient the place kiosks could be low upkeep. They might be cashless and paperless. Not having to cope with topping up paper and paper jams. Fewer shifting elements and fewer to go unsuitable”

Stephen Rickett, APCOA

In 2020, Rickett determined that, relatively than proceed to depend on fee kiosks designed by third-party suppliers, APCOA would construct its personal customised kiosks.
“We had a imaginative and prescient the place kiosks could be low upkeep. They might be cashless – with no cash, no notes – and paperless. Not having to cope with topping up paper and paper jams. Fewer shifting elements and fewer to go unsuitable.” he says.
APCOA additionally wished the power to change the wording and designs of the show screens remotely. “The wording on the show is essential to us. It must be completely different for various car parks as a result of every car park is completely different,” he says. “We wished to affect the whole buyer journey, each display screen, each button press, and the way it appears to be like.”
APCOA purchased the bodily construction of the parking kiosks from Evoke Inventive, an organization within the Wirral, maybe finest recognized for supplying the kiosks utilized by clients to place orders for burgers and milkshakes in McDonalds.
The IT group used a Microsoft improvement instrument, Xamarin, to program the kiosks to replicate the capabilities of its APCOA Join parking app. The group launched a barcode scanner that may permit car park house owners to hand out promotional playing cards to clients providing them free or discounted parking.
APCOA is in a position to change the messaging on the kiosks or replace parking tariffs from its management centre in a matter of minutes. Updates may be so simple as making it clear that individuals ought to pay after they depart the car park relatively than after they arrive, or reminding clients that they don’t want to pay in the event that they keep for underneath two hours.
It is a far cry from conventional parking kiosks, which frequently required an engineer to go to the machine in individual with a substitute SD card to replace the software program.
ANPR cameras make it potential for car park house owners to dispense with fee kiosks altogether, however some shoppers nonetheless desire to have them. “It’s not one thing we push as a result of numerous the time car parks are tending in the direction of digital fee tariffs, nevertheless it’s added functionality,” he says. “It’s a part of our armoury.”
To this point, APCOA has deployed 20 of its customised kiosks. Its German car parking enterprise has ordered 5, and additional curiosity is coming from Belgium and Poland.
ANPR means computerized boundaries are now not essential, however for car park house owners that also need them – and a few do – APCOA’s group has labored with entry management firm FACC in Basingstoke to combine its boundaries into Parkway.
“Having that instrument in our ecosystem means we are able to ship a complete end-to-end answer with out third-party suppliers,” says Rickett.
Over breakfast throughout a enterprise convention, Rickett and Challis got here up with an concept for simplifying parking funds. Challis instructed placing the know-how from APCOA’s fee kiosks right into a cell phone to create a “digital kiosk”.
The outcome was Scan Pay, a web site clients can entry by scanning a QR code to pay with out having to register or obtain an app. The web site hyperlinks to Apple Pay and Google Pay, so clients pays for his or her parking in a matter of seconds.
“You may pay as you might be strolling again to your car. You don’t have to obtain any apps or register for a person account should you don’t need to,” says Rickett.

Quantity crunching

In 2020, APCOA started a undertaking to create a data warehouse to seize and analyse data gathered from the vehicles visiting its car parks. The undertaking was impressed by a young doc from a shopper that requested a reporting dashboard to present the data coming in from ANPR readers and funds.
APCOA had software program builders and analysts, however didn’t have any experience in big data. It turned to a consulting firm for recommendation on how to construct a data warehouse.
The IT group determined to use Microsoft instruments so far as potential to ingest data, course of it and show the outcomes of the evaluation. It opted for Microsoft’s Energy BI enterprise intelligence software program.
One of many largest challenges, says Rickett, was discovering methods to extract data from a various vary of units, together with the fee kiosks utilized in shoppers’ car parks.
The group used a mixture of software programming interfaces (APIs) and file switch protocol (FTP) to take data from Parkway, and different databases hosted by APCOA, to feed into the data warehouse.
It took six months to get the data warehouse up and working.

APCOA is in a position to use its data warehouse to make suggestions to its shoppers concerning the optimum costs to cost. “We’re in a position to say should you change your tariff to X you will notice an upside of Y,” says Rickett. “We now have shopper testimonials the place we’ve got elevated their income.”
Some car park operators have launched differential pricing, in order that clients pay extra at peak instances or when there are fewer parking areas out there.
Data from ANPR cameras is additionally helping parking wardens, or civil enforcement officers as they’re recognized. The cameras can determine which streets are busy and which streets are quiet. APCOA is in a position to monitor which streets officers have patrolled and determine any streets they could have been missed.
On the day Computer Weekly visited APCOA’s places of work in Uxbridge, West London, the analytics group had accomplished a primary prototype of an emissions dashboard. It is in a position to present car park house owners the automobile emissions generated by their car parks by figuring out car fashions and engine varieties from the quantity plates of visiting vehicles.
“It’s very early days however we’ve got seen some attention-grabbing data from it,” says Rickett. “You’re able to see what number of petrol, diesel and electrical autos there are, and we’re figuring out what the common carbon footprint is for autos driving into the car park at common speeds.”
Evaluation of the data can alert car park operators to developments within the variety of electrical autos parking of their car parks and present whether or not it is sensible to set up electrical charging factors.
Different suggestions would possibly embody eradicating boundaries to velocity up visitors stream into the car park.
APCOA is now providing data analytics routinely in its car park administration bids, as well as to providing data analytics as an extra service to present shoppers.
Beforehand, APCOA relied on handbook spreadsheets to collect data on the efficiency of its clients’ car parks. The data was at all times retrospective and didn’t permit the corporate or its shoppers to monitor the efficiency of car parks in actual time.
“Most of our analytics could be an individual trying on the data in spreadsheets, offering beautiful graphs and charts and infinite experiences to infinite clients and shoppers,” says Challis.

Parkway takes off at Heathrow

APCOA’s work on Parkway paid off in December 2020 when the corporate received a contract to handle fees for vehicles dropping off passengers visiting London’s Heathrow Airport.
“There was numerous work to do, however from a know-how perspective, the atmosphere was already there and scalable sufficient to deal with the extent of demand,” says Rickett.
Though APCOA supplied the infrastructure and web sites for Heathrow, the service is branded as a Heathrow Airport service.
One of many largest duties going through the IT group was to perceive who, among the many many contractors and employees working at Heathrow, must be exempt from paying fees. Even Heathrow Airport didn’t have a full listing.
“We wished to be sure that we didn’t ship a penalty cost discover to Heathrow’s CIO,” says Rickett.
APCOA was in a position to roll out the system in underneath 9 months. The undertaking went dwell in late September 2021 and Heathrow started charging drivers for dropping off passengers in October 2021.
The parking firm labored with engineering firm Atkins to set up 20 ANPR cameras at every of Heathrow’s terminals.
The system went by way of a number of layers of testing, by APCOA, Heathrow’s engineering companion Arup and at last Heathrow Airport itself. Work befell at evening to permit the airport to operate usually in the course of the day.
Drivers pays robotically as they go to or up to 24 hours later, by phone, on-line, or by way of a cell app. Taxi drivers pays 12 months prematurely.
Heathrow has created an exemption listing of fifty,000 autos, which embody Heathrow employees, contractors and different guests.
Taxi agency Addison Lee has registered 20,000 autos, permitting the corporate to obtain month-to-month statements displaying parking fees.

Automated car parking

APCOA is now working with parking app developer Parkopedia and automotive corporations, together with Daimler, BMW and Skoda, to permit drivers to pay for parking using their car’s infotainment methods.
The undertaking will make it potential for drivers to ebook parking bays prematurely and to use car parks with out having to purchase a ticket. The identical system will permit drivers to pay to cost electrical autos, pay street tolls or airport drop-off fees, or purchase petrol.
The subsequent step is automated parking.
In Germany, APCOA is working with Bosch and Mercedes-Benz on know-how that permits vehicles to park themselves in a multi-storey car park at Stuttgart Airport. The Automated Valet service permits drivers to depart their car and have it drive itself to a parking house by tapping right into a smartphone app.
Bosch has put in sensors within the car park that monitor the driving route and the environment of the car to ship navigation directions. Mercedes-Benz autos are in a position to drive themselves up and down ramps. If the sensors within the car park detect an impediment, the automobile comes to a protected cease and continues as soon as the route is clear.
Drivers can gather their car by using the app once more as soon as they return to the car park. APCOA has plans to lengthen the automated parking trials to different nations.

The way forward for parking

APCOA’s first city mobility hub opened in February 2023 at a multi-storey car park within the centre of Carmarthen, Wales. St Catherine’s Stroll hub will provide workspaces and Wi-Fi for folks to use whereas they cost their electrical autos.
APCOA additionally plans to encourage native companies by changing a piece of the car park to provide workplace house for startup corporations.
The corporate has plans for the car park to be used as a drop-off and assortment level for parcels, and to work with native companies to create pop-up retailers and kiosks.
APCOA has recognized an extra 10 car parks for growing into city hubs, with Sheffield and Manchester to observe.
The corporate is working with companions to design and set up roof-based photograph voltaic cell methods to energy every website. It’s going to additionally introduce shows to give folks native data, resembling dwell data on prepare, bus and taxi companies, particulars of native occasions and instructions to native locations.
“We’re going to assess the viability of the hubs and take a look at what the advantages are over the subsequent six to 9 months. I believe by the tip of this 12 months we’re seemingly to have a minimum of three or 4 of the hubs up and working,” says Challis.
One seemingly software is to provide house to meals supply corporations in order that the car parks turn out to be distribution factors for the encircling space. “If you’re Uber Eats or Simply Eat, or delivering parcels, you possibly can get all of your packages delivered to the car park and use it as a hub,” she says.
Drivers on electrical mopeds and electrical scooters might take packages the final mile for last supply, slicing down on van journeys.
Though different organisations have purpose-built hubs for parking, Challis says her technique is to convert present car parks.
“Different individuals are beginning to put issues like lockers and cycle parks into car parks, however truly bringing all of it collectively as a hub idea has but to be finished,” she says.
Not each concept makes it off the drafting board. At one level, APCOA thought of using car parks as areas for “darkish kitchens” that may cook dinner meals to order for takeaway supply companies, like Simply Eat.
However the price of delivering water and wastewater companies to car parks made the concept troublesome to justify. It might have required car park house owners to provide 10- or 15-year leases to the kitchen suppliers. That was a tall order in a enterprise the place it is troublesome to predict car parking calls for even 5 years forward.

APCOA’s enterprise progress

Challis says the event of Parkway has allowed the corporate to present customised companies to the organisations that personal the car parks APCOA operates.
“We are able to now pay attention to our shoppers and perceive what their enterprise wants are, and we are able to use Parkway to configure the system to ship on these wants,” she says.

“We are able to now pay attention to our shoppers and perceive what their enterprise wants are, and we are able to use Parkway to configure the system to ship on these wants”
Kim Challis, APCOA

If there are repeated requests for capabilities which are “not a part of the kitbag” right this moment, APCOA can construct that into the platform in future.
The important thing measure of success for any car park operator is its capacity not simply to win new contracts however to preserve present contracts. Prior to Parkway, retention charges for contracts had been working at between 80% and 85%. At present, they’re between 98% and 99%. Over the identical time, revenues have risen by 25%.
“We at all times say retention is the primary technique for progress. If you happen to don’t maintain on to the shoppers that you just had, there’s no level rising, proper? After which we’ve got seen an enormous quantity of progress on high of that,” says Challis.
APCOA’s abroad operations in Eire, Austria, Switzerland and Germany are working Parkway. Operations in Poland and Italy will go dwell this 12 months.
If there was one factor Challis would do in a different way, she says she would roll out Parkway extra rapidly. “We weren’t anticipating the exponential progress we’ve got had over the previous three years, and also you type of look again and assume, ‘If we’d have finished this a little bit bit quicker we might have gotten much more progress’,” she says.
Rickett says that if he had the possibility once more, he would construct Parkway within the cloud first relatively than in APCOA’s personal datacentre. That might have sped up improvement time and provided increased resilience and the power to scale the platform proper from the start, he says.
Having a enterprise analyst on board the event group earlier on would even have made a distinction. “We didn’t do a lot repeat work, however we would have finished issues in a distinct order if we had had that to start with,” he says.
If there is one factor that also retains Ricket awake at evening it is opening a brand new car park. “Regardless that we’ve been doing it for thus lengthy, it’s nonetheless our car park, our revenues. There is numerous concentrate on it.”  

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