Parking Bandits and Data Visualization

October 20, 2015 – Charlie Francis


This is the fourth of our weekly From the Desk of the Finance Director column. Click here to see a list of all editions.

October 20, 2015

From the Finance Director’s Desk …

I began my career as a Finance Director in 1979. Four years later, Lotus 1-2-3 hit the market as a three-in-one, integrated solution that handled spreadsheet calculations, database functionality, and graphical charts — hence the name 1-2-3.

I had loaded years of daily parking meter revenue from each of the beaches in my barrier island city in Florida into Lotus 1-2-3. Once the data were loaded, I started graphing the results. I created both incremental and cumulative year-over-year graphs, and incremental and cumulative month-over-month graphs. I generated the graphs city-wide, and for each beach. I became an expert at creating Lotus 1-2-3 graphs. They were good-looking graphs – well, as attractive as Lotus 1-2-3 graphs could be, running on DOS computers, back in 1983…

One day, as I was admiring the handiwork of my newly learned skill, I noticed something curious in the trends depicted in the graphs. Every year, during one particular week in the height of each summer season, parking meter revenues plummeted. Multiple views of the data showed me this was not a fluke. There was no logical explanation for this abnormality; the city never declared a parking holiday because parking was a mainstay of our revenue base.

The beaches were never closed. There were no neighboring events that competed for beachgoers thus reducing demand. The bridges were neither closed nor down for scheduled maintenance. Nothing seemed to explain the deviation.

Then, one evening, I was reading Sherlock Holmes wrestling with a problem in The Sign of the Four. He asks Watson, “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

“Aha,” I said to myself, and the next day, I told the Police Chief he should stake out the parking lots during that one particular upcoming week. After a fruitful evening of investigation, we found that the Midwest-based parking lot bandits had an accomplice working at the meter manufacturer, where he obtained the new master cylinder key for our parking lots. Then, every year, the bandits would pay for their Florida vacation by emptying the parking meters. Caught red-handed!

Data visualization and analysis tools won’t catch parking meter thieves every day, but visualization enables Finance Directors to identify trends, understand the big picture from large amounts of data, and spot unusual patterns. New operational reporting and analytics tools enable Finance Directors to tell better stories (the 2015 GFOA theme), and create effective reports that permit City Councils, City Managers and Department Heads to see the city’s financial condition at both a high-level glance and at the granularity of the transaction level.

Finance Directors are visualizing data to better interact not only with their own information, but also with their neighboring, regional, and comparison city’s data! And, they are also able to interact, analyze and present information with greater velocity — more time to analyze and add value to information, and less time spent collecting data. This yields productivity, efficiency and creativity!

Going forward, new tools will provide city finance professionals with the ability to not only detect and confirm spending inefficiencies, or unrealized revenue, but also to predict, compare and collaborate on new transformative approaches that will guide the policy decisions for fiscally stable and structurally balanced city governments.


Charlie Francis is a municipal finance expert. He has more than forty years of local government financial management experience in both the public and private sector, including twenty years of experience as a Chief Financial Officer. Most recently, he served as the Director of Administrative Services and Treasurer for the City of Sausalito where he earned the unofficial title of “OpenGov super user”. He has also served as a finance manager for the Town of Colma, CA and as CFO and acting City Manager for the Cities of Indian Wells, CA and Tracy, CA.

Questions or comments? Email Charlie at cfrancis@opengov.com.

Category: Government Finance