Saturday, November 17, 2012

Electronic Parking Lot

I was headed to a meeting downtown yesterday, and finding a place to park in the city is always a challenge. Luckily, there is a little old lot right next to the office building, which is a bit more expensive and does not accept any ticket validation, but it’s very clean, well lit and convenient. Up until last year the lot was owned and operated by a “mom and pop” type of business. You pulled in, found a good spot and by the time you grabbed your stuff and stepped out of the car, an elderly gentleman was standing there writing your receipt. You gave him some cash, took the little pink receipt and went about your business. When you were done, you came back, got in your car and drove away. No automated barriers, no buttons, no credit cards and no hassles. Yesterday, my little parking lot was different.

The first thing I noticed was that the parking spots were numbered, with big white digits imprinted on the freshly resurfaced asphalt. The second thing I noticed was that it was a bit harder to park because the spaces seemed to have shrunk a few inches on each side, and the third noticeable difference was the absence of the always cheery old attendant with his perennial pink book. Looking up and down the small lot, I saw a big sign at the entrance sporting the logo of some “Parking Lots R Us” company, and at the far end I saw a group of men wearing suits engaged in animated conversation. Maybe the attendant is now wearing a suit too. I headed over to the group and asked to pay for my parking. They were business men from another town trying to figure out the same thing, and right behind them was a brand new machine, looking very much like an ATM, about 4 feet tall, with lots of buttons and stickers on it explaining the process. Piece of cake.

I’m a technology geek, I travel quite a bit and I’ve seen similar machines before. I walked through the befuddled small crowd of what must have been potato farmers with no access to computers (or so I decided), which parted reverently like the Red Sea did for Moses, and approached the machine. It had a credit card slot, so I pulled out a random card and inserted it in the slot. Nothing. Pulled it out, and put it back in. Still nothing. Circled the machine slowly, and saw a picture of the exact card I inserted on the colorful sticker on the back of the machine. It should accept it, and there was no place to insert cash. I decided to try another card and this time, the machine came alive with a “Processing….” message on the huge screen on its front. I guess it has preferences the manufacturers didn’t know about. My potato farmers were happy with the progress, and digging through their wallets for a similar credit card. Then the machine requested that I use its buttons to enter my number. It was a credit card, so I had no idea what number it was asking for. Engineers don’t ever read instructions, but at this point, I felt a departure from customary behavior was acceptable. The big sticker with small fonts said that I needed the parking spot number. Aha. I looked back to my car, but the big white digits on the asphalt were hardly visible now, so I started walking towards my parking space. Luckily some spaces on the near side of my car were empty, and using advanced mathematics, I figured out that my number was 23. I yelled it out and the youngest potato farmer punched it into the machine. Of course he didn’t hit the “Enter” button, so nothing happened until I went back and completed the transaction. The machine printed out a big ticket, and flashed some advice on its screen saying that the ticket must be visible through the windshield, or a $50 fine will be assessed, which is twice what I had to pay today and 5 times what I used to pay the old attendant with the pink book. Then it said “Thank You” for parking with “Parking Lots R Us”. The potato farmers were cheering loudly, and emboldened by my success, proceeded to pay for their parking amongst much excitement and running back and forth to their cars to find their “numbers”. Technology can be so satisfying.

Good thing I had to go back and place the ticket in a visible spot on my dashboard, because I found that I had forgotten to roll my window all the way up, and you never know when it will start raining on a bright and sunny day. On my way out of the parking lot, I almost stumbled on a potato farmer, bending down to catch a better glimpse of his parking space number, and sticking out of his shoulder bag was a spiffy MacBook Air shining in the sun. Maybe they weren’t potato farmers after all. Oh well, I was 20 minutes late for my meeting and for some reason had trouble concentrating on “The Barriers and Benefits of CPOE Adoption in Community Hospitals”. So I wrote this blog instead. I'll write about Meaningful Use Stage 3 later.

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