Image by Tak Toyoshima
When the City of Boston rolled out its new parking ticket app last month, the news was offered with the usual press release puffery, and received with a routine Hub media fellatio.
“Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced today … a new app that allows for quick, convenient and secure parking ticket payments by smartphone,” according to the city’s email to press, which came with the requisite mayoral endorsement: “The new PayTix app is another example of how we’re using technology to make city government more efficient and effective for the people of Boston.”
So it often goes with the arrival of new municipal tech. Proud bureaucrats boast, which is understandable, while reporters parrot, which is lazy. In the case of PayTix, Boston.com quoted the “efficient and effective” line directly, while college and community papers also chimed in celebration. Nevermind that the city had for two years prior already contracted with a local startup, TicketZen, to provide a comparable payment service. What ensued was blog and social media applause for Xerox, the behemoth behind PayTix, which is hardly a new kid on the block around here.
Xerox and subsidiaries of the company have done business with Boston for more than 30 years. Affiliated Computer Services (ACS), which Xerox acquired in 2010, began contracting with the city in 1981, and in 2007 struck a $19 million deal for three years to provide the city with services including “parking violation processing, notice generation and mailing, adjudication and appeals scheduling, document imaging and correspondence management, training, and help desk support.” Since then, Xerox has continued its seven-figure annual service to Boston. A contract from 2012, obtained by the public records site MuckRock, shows ACS was paid for the “provision and operation of a Parking Violation/Parking Management Information Services System (PVPMISS),” and further states that “ACS will also serve as the city’s collection agency for delinquent parking fines.”
Despite the allegiance to Xerox—in FY2013, the city did $4,475,474 in business with the company, then nearly $5 million the following year—when it came time to co-sign an app for actually paying tickets, in 2014 Boston’s Department of Innovation and Technology and the Boston Transportation Department chose TicketZen, a local startup spun out of the Boston-based Terrible Labs. At the time, Terrible Labs Director Cort Johnson told reporters, “The city needs a better blueprint for working and piloting projects/products that are startup oriented.”
The implementation was a success. By the city’s own admission, Boston “saw a steady increase of parking violations being paid with the mobile app,” while “the proof-of-concept project for mobile parking ticket payment with TicketZen showed the demand from users to continue this service, with over 2,100 ticket payment transactions a month through the app.” Yet while Xerox was still banking off the other parking services it provides—in FY2015, the publicly traded company made more than $4 million off the Hub—TicketZen was not paid for its efforts. Unless you count press release props from city officials.
With TicketZen ceasing its free work agreement with Boston in November, officials put the call out for a new app provider. Lo and behold, Xerox came around with PayTix. Which was interesting to those of us at DigBoston, since last year our contributor Kenneth Lipp revealed that the company left a significant trove of license plate and home address information exposed online. Xerox hid the data after being alerted to the problem, but refused to own up to the apparent error. Instead, a company spokesperson claimed in an email to the Dig that the contents of the server included “publicly available information used to enforce residential parking regulations such as license plate numbers.” Which was demonstrably untrue.
The Dig asked the city several questions for this story in order to clarify the relationship between Boston and Xerox. A spokesperson responded to all but one: “Is Mayor Walsh aware that a Xerox company contracted by the city to store license plate data was exposed last year for having left troves of data online? Has the city taken any steps to ensure that more information is not compromised in the future, particularly in regard to the new parking program underway with Xerox?”
Attempts to reach TicketZen for this story were unsuccessful. According to the city, officials “were thankful to work with [the] local start-up over the past year, and learned a great deal about the demand for these types of services available on mobile devices.” But “TicketZen made a business decision to focus on other products at the conclusion of the pilot with the City in November.”
In a statement to the Boston Globe technology site BetaBoston, however, TicketZen cofounder Joe Lind said his “team is still working on the app even though they’ve all moved on to new jobs,” and added that they’re “still focused on a few other key cities and are excited to expand the core product into new markets.” Lind doesn’t seem bitter; Terrible Labs was acquired by Autodesk in late 2014, so it isn’t like the loser deal with Boston put the startup over a barrel. That doesn’t change the optics though; no matter how the story is framed from a PR standpoint, the Hub took a freebie from a downtown company for two years, then gave the gig to a multinational giant. In a city that coddles the likes of General Electric, this is something to take note of. And it’s not only Boston; faced with the same decision in 2014, the City of Cambridge chose Xerox over TicketZen.
Asked about the apparent favoring of Xerox over a smaller local operation, Kris Carter from the city’s office of New Urban Mechanics told BetaBoston, “This is not about swapping out a startup for an established company in our minds.”
Outside of their minds, of course, that’s exactly what happened.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.