The Role of “Big Data’ in Parking Operation Auditing

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The Role of “Big Data’ in Parking Operation Auditing

 One of the buzz terms circulating about the parking industry is “big data.” Companies such as IBM with “smart city” initiatives have become quite interested in the data captured by PARCS equipment and how these can aid in decision-making related to the larger function of the environments in which people park. 
This has set off a less-talked-about trend inside parking organizations related to the auditing of revenue collection and reporting processes within an operation. Some really innovative things are happening in this space that allow companies to truly work smarter versus harder, and resolve the always present dilemma of doing more with less. 
 
More Data, Less Effort
The quantity and quality of data available within on- and off-street equipment systems have eclipsed what we had to work with 10 years ago. The days of manually auditing coin boxes, meters and stand-alone fee computer operations, and other similar activities, have been rendered less valuable by so-called “cloud-based” systems that report every detail associated with transactions in real-time. 
I remember a time when I would visit coin boxes ahead of enforcement patrollers and/or revenue collectors and count the number of paid spaces through the Plexiglas, so that later this count could be reconciled to activities and deposited revenue. 
Now it’s possible to see this information on a laptop or smartphone screen at the click of a button and know what sort of activity is taking place at any given time. 
In addition, these data are stored within the system and can be easily accessed and utilized for auditing purposes, without the time-consuming task of collecting such data manually and then recording them on an
Excel spreadsheet. 
 
Find the Needle in the Haystack
Through Analysis
It wasn’t all that long ago that a best-in-class auditing standard was to look at every single transaction, shift report and tape to detect mistakes and fraud. In today’s world, except in unique situations and where technological advancements haven’t been implemented, this practice is considered a low-value use of resources. 
The new standard involves looking at data on more of a macro level to identify anomalies and then completing detailed audit activities on shifts and machines where something appears to be out of the ordinary. 
Because of the accessibility of this information, it is quite easy to compare a day’s results to the same time last week, month and year, and also to compare performance to other locations and zones nearby. If a 20% revenue drop occurs at one facility, it’s fairly easy to see if the same drop occurred elsewhere in the area or stands out as being truly unusual. 
Companies taking this approach do go through a benchmarking process to establish normal ranges of activity and determine thresholds that should flag out-of-the-ordinary occurrences, so they can be reviewed in a systematic way. 
It’s possible not only to compare one facility or zone to another, but also to monitor the performance of specific employees as they move from one location to the next and identify patterns of behavior. 
I recently had a client detect ticket manipulations being made by a cashier who floated from one location to the next in this way. 
By reviewing a month of activity for this employee and comparing it to normal shift activity at these locations when other employees worked, it was discovered that this employee had a much higher number of “early bird” transactions than the norm, regardless of where she worked. 
The company used these data to step up a lot audit and confirmed the suspected ticket manipulation scheme that was taking place. 
 
Don’t Throw Out the Baby With the Bathwater
Hopefully the above story illustrates that the shiny new toy that is data analysis is not effective if used in isolation. A blending of legacy audit practices with these new procedures is the best way to be more efficient while still achieving the results expected.
An effective audit program strategy in this new world involves the use of a robust risk assessment tool that objectively evaluates parking operations from the standpoint of revenue control vulnerabilities, and that is then followed up with the deployment of data analysis and detailed audit activities at a frequency dictated by the risk assessment results. 
It’s an exciting time in the industry from an auditing standpoint, as all of these data become more accessible and begin to be leveraged by operators. To remain competitive, everyone will need to adapt to an approach that capitalizes on this opportunity in some way. If you haven’t started thinking about this yet, consider what types of systems you are using within your operations, the information they provide, how it can be accessed and by whom. 
This important first step will put you on the path toward a more efficient and effective audit program and ultimately a better level of performance across all your operations. 
 
Contact Vicki Pero, a Principal of The Marlyn Group, at
vpero@marlyngroupllc.com.
Article contributed by:
Vicki Pero
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