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Wichita State To Replace Parking Tags With License Plate Scanning System

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Sean Sandefur
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KMUW

Wichita State University recently finalized a contract to bring license plate scanners onto campus. The technology will be used to monitor parking and will replace the traditional hangtags that are displayed inside of cars. KMUW’s Sean Sandefur takes a look at the technology and its impact.

Wichita State University has a number of large parking lots on the north side of its campus. They’re divided into different colors—yellow and green are for students and staff. To park in these lots, drivers need to have a corresponding plastic hangtag, which are often hanging from a rear view mirror.

“Parking has been the most difficult issue of every generation of college students,” says Lou Heldman, vice president for strategic communications at WSU.

Heldman says the current parking system at Wichita State is burdensome and expensive. Students, faculty and staff have to fill out a form to register for parking hangtags, which are then sent by mail. The tags must be renewed each year. For the university, that means parking lot attendants are inspecting each tag to make sure they’re legitimate.

But soon, the tags will go away, and the information on one's license plate will be gathered. The school has signed a contract with NuPark, a license plate recognition company out of Cedar Park, TX.

“We will have scanners on two of our parking vehicles that will be roaming around the parking lots every day, a number of times a day. And they’ll do a couple of things for us," Heldmans says.

Patrol cars will scan each and every license plate it passes, checking to see which cars have a right to be there—meaning, who has paid their parking fees.

“It will also give us a lot of data about lot capacity and how much a lot is used at certain times a day," Heldman says.

The system is designed to tell the university whether traffic can be funneled to parking lots that aren’t being used. They can even use it plan where future lots should go.

“One of our plans is to build a parking garage south of the Rhatigan Student Center. This may tell us that that’s either a great place for a parking garage, or maybe we should be considering somewhere else," Heldman says.

Parking is a big deal for Wichita State from a revenue perspective. According to the university’s finance department, nearly $1.4 million was collected in 2015 from parking fees and fines.

The university is going to use this revenue to implement and maintain the license plate scanning technology. There will be a one-time equipment fee of around $100,000 and an annual software fee of $25,000.

The university expects to save a significant amount of money in the long run.

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Credit NuPark
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A graphic from NuPark's website shows how scanners will monitor license plates.

So, how does the technology work? It starts with two small cameras mounted to the top of a vehicle that drives through campus, explains Kevin Uhlenhaker, CEO and co-founder of NuPark, the company that Wichita State has purchased this technology from.

“The camera will read the plates. Those numbers and letters are then cross-referenced with people who have purchased permits and who are allowed to be on campus at that time," he says. "And then if a vehicle hasn’t paid to park, [the software] will pop up for the officer, saying ‘hey, this person hasn’t paid, and then they’re able to issue that person a citation.”

NuPark has clients across the U.S., including Baylor University and the University of Kansas. The company didn’t invent license plate scanning technology; law enforcement agencies have been using it for decades. However, they were one of the first companies to use it to keep track of parking lots.

An Issue of Privacy

Uhlenhaker understands that there might be privacy concerns when hundreds of people are having their license plates scanned and their locations noted.

“The data collected is for parking purposes, and as such, it gets purged on a regular basis. There’s a set period of time, around 90 to 120 days. All of that data that’s not issued a citation is actually purged of the system," he says. "So it’s not a long-term tracking like you might have heard from other systems. It is a short-term verification process.”

Uhlenhaker says these license plate scanners won’t be communicating with other police databases. That doesn’t mean, however, that the data collected by these scanners can’t be used in police investigations. Police might also be able to ask the university to flag certain vehicles that are linked to someone they want to talk to. Uhlenhaker likes to think of it like footage captured from security cameras.

“It has been used for investigations as wide-ranging from a terrorism investigation, murder suspects, stolen cars, missing students," he says.

He says each of their clients creates protocol for circumstances like this, especially the length of time in which data will be stored and who will have access to it. Protocol like this is essential, according to Michael Birzer, a professor of criminal justice at Wichita State and director of the university’s School of Community Affairs.

“I think there should be clear-cut guidelines in that protocol or policy how long that data will be stored," he says, "because if it’s stored for a longer period of time, the greater the chances are of someone accusing the agency of doing something with their information."

Birzer says any school or business that uses license plate scanning should identify who will have access to the data, and what will be shared with law enforcement.

Lou Heldman understands the concern of privacy, but says this is the campus of a public university in the 21st century.

“There’s definitely a trend in society toward the use of cameras and recording devices," Heldman says. "And I think it’s clear to most people that there’s no expectation of privacy in a public place. In fact, there’s never been such an expectation.”

Heldman says Wichita State will come up with a comprehensive protocol that covers many factors, including how long data will be stored, how it’s stored and who will be able to access it.

The school will begin implementing the technology in stages starting this summer.

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Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter @SeanSandefur

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.