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How risky is it to run inside for that cup of coffee without feeding the meter? SpotAgent will figure that out for you.

There’s a coffee shop down the street from Shea Frederick’s house in the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore that routinely lures morning commuters into becoming scofflaws. The parking meters out front require payment from 8 in the morning until 8 at night. But, of course, it only takes a few minutes on the way to work to run in and grab a cup of coffee, right?

The city’s parking citation rolls – now updated daily and published online in impressive detail – confirm that this gamble doesn’t work out for many people. “I noticed in the data,” Frederick says, “that there’s actually a spike right around 8 to 8:30 when the meter maids would just go crazy on that little spot in front of that coffee shop.”

Meter maids often feel like an unseen presence in the city. But they leave surprisingly visible trails through data. And the tragic story of all this super-expensive coffee on Baltimore’s West 36th Street confirms something you likely already suspect in your gut: Meter maids are savvy, and they’re much more likely to ticket you in some parts of town – and at certain parts of the day – than others.

"There are definitely hotspots throughout the city," says Frederick, an AOL programmer by day. He and James Schaffer have turned these patterns into actionable intelligence for drivers in Baltimore with what may be the best parking app we’ve ever seen, SpotAgent (hat tip to the Sunlight Foundation for pointing us to Frederick, one of their “OpenGov Champions”).

SpotAgent uses real-time parking citation data from the city to calculate your risk of getting a ticket at any given location in Baltimore. The city’s data includes the date, time and a rough address (as well as license plate info) for every parking ticket handed out in the city in the past year. And new tickets typically appear in the database within just a few hours of landing on a windshield.

Frederick and Schaffer use that data to calculate a threat score based upon the number of citations given out within 100 meters of your location. Tickets written around the same time of day, on the same day of the week, push the score up higher.

Just this morning, the threat level in front of that coffee shop, Common Ground, at 8:30 a.m. was a blaring red. The app translates your risk into a green/yellow/red threat scale. But for reference, Frederick says, the score on the back end of the data for that block this morning was 47. The system considers anything over 12 to be high.

The app is a pretty ingenious play in the technological arms race of urban parking. Meter maids are now tech-savvier than ever in ticketing you. In many cities, they use handheld devices to input the license plates of cars parked in two-hour residential parking zones that don’t have parking meters (think you can just wipe the chalk off your rear tire and stay a few hours longer? Not any more.). The old trick of relocating your car across the street in a two-hour zone won’t work any more in Baltimore, either (Frederick knows; he’s heard from a lot of angry drivers caught in this maneuver).

It's hard to blame the meter maids for staking out the coffee shop. They’re not gaming the system any more than those drivers are who think they can grab a cup of coffee without feeding the meter. "All’s fair in love and war," Frederick concedes. And parking. "Hey, you’re trying to save your 25 cents, and sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose."

He laughs at the suggestion that the city might not love this use of its open data (Frederick was, by the way, instrumental in getting Baltimore to release this real-time parking information). But he says he’s never heard any gripes from the city government about the tool.

SpotAgent could clearly encourage some risk-takers to slough off meter fees entirely. But Frederick says he uses the app a little differently, to calibrate his own risk-assessment calculation every time he feeds a meter.

"You know how it is when you go to a meter. You think ‘I’m going to be here an hour. Hopefully if I’m over 5-10 minutes that I’m not paying for, I can get away with,'" he says. "But if it’s a red threat level, I’ll put in extra money."

Top image: Fernando Cortes/Shutterstock

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