To Tow or Not to Tow Palmtop Answers the Question

New York City attacks the problem of thousands of unrecovered stolen vehicles and $1 billion in unpaid parking tickets.

by / June 30, 1997
The New York metropolitan area contains nearly 20 million people, many of whom own and drive automobiles. On a typical day, more than 1 million cars line the streets and fill the parking lots of New York City. As the number of vehicles and vehicle-related violations increase, law enforcement has been hard-pressed to keep up, especially since Sheriff's Office personnel has been reduced 50 percent since 1985. Last year, unpaid parking tickets exceeded $1 billion per year. More than 100,000 vehicles were stolen, but only about one-third were eventually recovered.

Until 1988, the city provided each parking enforcement staff member with a book of license plate numbers several hundred pages long. Enforcement personnel would look up license plates to identify stolen vehicles or parking scofflaws. The books were printed and distributed weekly.

Eight years ago, in an attempt to automate the clumsy hard-copy system, the city purchased mobile data terminals (MDTs), which made accessing the information quicker and more reliable. Staff typed license plate numbers into MDTs in their patrol cars. This accessed a database maintained by American Management Systems (AMS) in Texas, and took less than a minute to verify if the car was towable. "This is precisely the benefit of an electronic inquiry," said Peter Talamo, undersheriff, NYC Sheriff's Office. "It can sort through the records at tremendous speed, instead of someone with very thick fingers looking through a book."

However, air time was expensive. "Here in New York City it is absolutely difficult to get radio frequencies," said Talamo. "Some outlying or more rural areas probably can operate with low frequency radio waves, but here in the city, it's very difficult." In addition, the Sheriff's Office paid charges for every inquiry, whether or not the car was towable. Only one out of every 200 vehicles checked was found eligible, so 99 percent of the $2 million-per-year access charges were wasted.

You do the math.


As the city looked for a way to reduce communication costs, recover more stolen vehicles and increase parking violation revenues, it wanted a more portable way of checking licenses. With MDTs, deputies drove down streets slowly and covered less territory than they would otherwise. They also needed devices that would work well near water, surrounded by buildings or in tunnels. What the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) found was a small, palm-sized solution called TOWIT.

TOWIT (TOW eligibility Interrogation Terminal), a palmtop PC-based system, locates vehicles previously reported stolen or with $230 or more of unpaid parking tickets. The deputy enters a suspect license number into the palmtop, where it is compared with a database of towable plates. The database is self-contained, so no radio frequency charges are incurred. If the palmtop finds a match, it beeps instantly, and the officer uses the MDT system to obtain more information. The palmtop's 16MB database is refreshed once a week with current information. This saves 99 percent of the formerly wasted radio frequency access charges. Plus, the one-minute wait time per entry is eliminated.

Once the sheriff verifies the vehicle is towable, the information is transmitted to the Department of Finance, and the MIS division will automatically input the information into NYSPIN (New York State Police Information Network), noting there is a hold on the car. Through a central number, owners can find out if their vehicles were stolen or have been seized by the city.

"With the TOWIT system you dramatically reduce costs and increase productivity because you can do the screening off-line, off-hours, and you don't have database access and radio charges," said Joe Bernstein, MIS director for the Department of Finance parking violations division.

In addition, the palmtops are lightweight, work well in any environment, are less costly to replace and allow deputies and marshals to cover more territory because they are portable and small enough to fit into a jacket pocket.

After a field test, TOWIT became operational in the Sheriff's Office in March 1996. The system is now used by 13 teams of deputies and their tow companies, as well as 20 City Marshals' tow companies.

It operates basically on two files: a dynamic file, still maintained by AMS and accessed via ARDIS, a Chicago-based company that provides radio frequency services (the dynamic file is often referred to as the ARDIS file); and a static file, which is an extract of the ARDIS file that fits on the palmtop's 5MB datacard.

Customizing the Technology

"TOWIT was completely developed inhouse, whereas a lot of other agencies would have contracted it out. So we're proud to have been able to do it ourselves," said Marc Jacobson, director of technology projects at DoITT. With a talented staff put together by Commissioner Ralph Balzano, DoITT was equipped with the skills to develop TOWIT and able to face the challenges that come with implementing a new system.

One of the obstacles was developing an algorithm that would allow 2 million license plates to be represented on the datacard. Each plate can have up to eight characters, and an entire file usually takes 16MB of storage. The algorithm was developed by Deputy Commissioner of Advanced Technology Joe Rubenfeld and his staff at DoITT. It converts the plate's character combination into an index, instead of displaying an actual list of license plates and related information. This way, the card can store much more data.

The second hurdle was finding a way to update the static file to match that of the ARDIS file. The MDTs had realtime information, while the datacard file was only updated every Sunday. Also, information on the ARDIS file changes daily, as soon as anybody pays a fine, reports a stolen car or has a charge dismissed. As a result, TOWIT would occasionally not detect towable cars, especially in cases where an inquiry was not made over a long period of time. As a solution, DoITT lowered the towable threshold to $220 to avoid missing cars during the week.

"After that was done, we had to develop means of tracking the usage of these cards and files," said Talamo. Two executable files were developed: one that could gather information on the status of how many plates were actually punched to determine TOWIT's success rate, and another to pinpoint when and where occurrences were actually taking place. Eventually the information will be used with a GIS to designate the most productive areas.

Bells and Whistles

Because TOWIT can operate on any DOS-based computing device with the ability to take a datacard, its possibilities are endless.

"The palmtop system can accommodate as many judgments as you want, as long as the MDT indicates the reason for a possible tow. You can have 10 different sources and it won't affect the storage capacity," explained Jacobson. Initially, the system only located towable vehicles due to parking judgments, but DoITT added a few "bells and whistles," such as including licenses of stolen vehicles. The department plans to add other sources of information, like links to deadbeat dads and judgments from the Department of Motor Vehicles, while other agencies like the Taxi and Limousine Commission may adopt the palmtop system to track vehicles that have not renewed registration. DoITT also wants to enhance the system so a radio frequency call is automatically made when the palmtop shows a possible tow.

Datasharing and Productivity

One of the most valuable assets TOWIT offered was connecting agencies and allowing them to share valuable information.

"They get to share the benefits of pooling data and resources," said Jacobson. TOWIT has connected agencies like DoITT, the Department of Finance, the Sheriff's Office and City Marshals, increasing interagency communications, productivity and services. The solution is fully endorsed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani during this time of rightsizing the workforce.

"I think a lot of it boils down to a real simple thing," said Talamo. "How can we use what's out there to our advantage?" Since tow companies paid for the equipment, cost to the city was minimal. The revenues generated can now go to more critical programs.


Since its implementation, the Sheriff's Office and City Marshals eliminated communications costs of up to $1.7 million, increased the recovery of stolen vehicles by 50 percent -- recovering over 4,000 stolen vehicles. Towed vehicles increased 10 percent, generating an additional $8 million in revenue. Each city marshal also pays the city $4,000 per month for the privilege of using information from TOWIT -- an additional $1 million per year in revenue. And a 30 percent increase in productivity helped make up for the loss of manpower.

Success was a result of technology and a collaboration effort by DoITT and the agencies who use it to customize the system to fit their needs. Their efforts earned a nomination for a Computerworld Smithsonian Award.

There are still one million cars that line the streets each day -- after all, we are talking about New York City.



TOWIT uses Hewlett-Packard's 1000CX and 200LX palmtop models. Cost is approximately $500 each. The PCMCIA (Personal Computer Memory Card International Association) card, also known as the PC Card, is a credit card-sized, removable module used for attaching a modem, network adapter or hard disk to a portable computer. For each card, the city pays $275.