This article first appeared in Parking Review, July 2021
Dave Herbert discusses the journey that Zatpark has taken over its first 10 years of operation, and how he sees the future of parking technology developing
There are many different routes into careers in the parking sector. Dave Herbert is one of the many people working in parking whose personal back story embodies a talent for lateral thinking and an openness to change, which in his case, helped him launch Unity 5, a company that develops ways of using data to manage parking more effectively and efficiently.
An aerospace engineer who became a data specialist and chance introductions led to Dave Herbert launching Zatpark, a parking IT platform whose name was inspired by a science-fiction movie.
Herbert discussed a very real commitment to applying science-fact to how traffic and parking is managed with Mark Moran, editor of Parking Review.
What kind of company would Zatpark describe itself as being? What’s the difference between Unity5 and Zatpark?
Unity 5 is the company with Zatpark being one of its products. We are a technology company, first and foremost. We have always wanted to grow our products independently, so we are a technology company that is also an expert in parking. Unity5 brings technology to the fore in the parking sector, making sure that our clients are always at the cutting edge.
Part of what we offer our clients is keeping a close eye on what is happening in the world of development. We look at the technology space, data science, hosting and security. We then make sure that whatever we bring forward into our products, particularly Zatpark, is at the top of its game.
What led to Zatpark being launched?
My background is in aerospace engineering. As a professional engineer and keen budding IT professional, in my early career I did a load of courses, requalified in coding and became an administrator on Unix systems to run high-end computing applications. One of the biggest challenges I faced was data management, so I ended up writing a data management system that went global. I also wrote lots of software for our design systems before I decided that it was time to go it alone.
I began consulting and, through a mutual acquaintance, met a guy who had a parking company. I developed a system that he paid me a license fee for. Then I helped to hire a systems person for him, Lukasz Kieruczenko, who was to become Zatpark’s co-founder in 2010.
The name ‘Zatpark’ was never meant to be permanent. I’m a fan of science-fiction, particularly Stargate, a film that became a TV series. There was a weapon they used called the Zat’Nik’tel, known as a ‘Zat’, and that is where the Zat in Zatpark came from. Zatpark.com was available and we thought we would use that as a code name to start with and then change it at some point. Of course, we never did.
We had our first client within three months and then it built from there, mostly by word of mouth. Those early clients are still with us and Will Slade, who was our first member of staff, is also still with us as lead software developer.
Unity 5 was essentially launched to bring Zatpark to market, which we designed afresh from the ground up as a commercial product. We could see that the technology that we had developed potentially had legs in other areas, so we wanted to make sure that if we were going to have something tagged as being parking-related it would be the product and not necessarily the tech business itself.
As it happen, the Zatpark product has gone from strength to strength, and all the ways in which we have ‘diversified’ so far have been parking-related, so it has been more a process of broadening of our product range. When we are considering how we can grow the product suite, it is naturally going to be through permits and other enforcement avenues. We have won two new council contracts to provide fixed penalty notices (FPNs) for environmental enforcement – Cornwall Council, and our most recent win, North East Lincolnshire.
What are the differences between working with private and public sector parking operators?
Zatpark worked solely with private operators until we won Lyme Regis Town Council in 2018, which was a toe across the line into the public sector. It was a contract relating to off-street not on-street enforcement, which fitted well with the model we already had from private parking clients. As a start-up it was helpful to work directly with decision-makers, which is what generally happens when you work with private companies. They will be the one to look at the pricing and they will make a decision fairly quickly so that, in turn, has helped us to grow quickly.
Private operators quite naturally are always driving for efficiencies and our clients would not just accept that Zatpark is a great system with benefits that are clear to see. They would say: “That’s great but I want this, this and this as well, and if you give me those things, I’ll sign up”. Being hungry and nimble enough, we have been driving the Zatpark feature set forward with each new client win.
Now we have got around 100 clients and all of them are looking to make their own improvements which is 90% of what we do. Therefore, our clients have a system that is never out of date. Even clients that bought the system in 2010 now have a modern 2021 system.
The private sector continues to be a huge part of what we do, and our strong and continuing commitment is unwavering. But we are additionally supporting the public sector, which operates in a far more prescriptive way, adhering to certain pieces of legislation. The big benefit for the public sector is that Zatpark has made 11 years of technological advancements, driven hard by the private sector.
How has Zatpark’s range of services evolved as society, commerce and driving have become more digital?
The iPhone launched a couple of years before us marking the beginning of our more connected lifestyle. Smart phones drove the move to having data at your fingertips and things have gone from there to us now having clients that only allow payment using a contactless payment terminal that does not take coins, or via a cashless provider – a tremendous change in a relatively short space of time.
We have seen local authorities move to having more than one cashless provider per site and we are getting asked more frequently if that is okay. It is. There is no barrier to that with Zatpark. You can have as many as you want, you can use the physical hardware you want, and you can use the third-party providers you want. That is a key benefit for both our private and public sector clients.
When you are looking at a connected environment where people are not using traditional methods to pay for their parking, you need to be well connected and centrally hosted using cloud platforms, as we are.
How is Zatpark helping its clients prepare for the electrification of vehicles?
We have the 2030 deadline when we know that there won’t be any new internal combustion engine cars sold, but a substantial number of people will be driving those cars for at least a further 10 years afterwards. Decisions about what the charging level should be for certain types of vehicles is down to the car park site owners or managers to decide, but emissions-based charging is something that we do, and our permit product already has that capability.
In our opinion, it makes sense to start breaking down the current national infrastructure and make it more inconvenient to drive a combustion engine because if that happens, people are going to move towards driving electric vehicles (EVs) more quickly. The issue of mobility and parking management will not go away, it will just change. I feel we are well-placed to be a meaningful part of that discussion going forwards.
What does Zatpark think about moves to standardise and integrate parking services (as seen in Alliance for Parking Data Standards and the National Parking Platform initiatives)?
We are incredibly supportive of data standards. Integrations are part of our DNA, and they are not all equal. Some specifications have been fantastic and some have organically grown over several years, which for integration is not a good thing. Having a set of standards to work to, working in a connected environment and everybody sharing data is something we really support.
We aggregate the data that comes into our client accounts and make sense of it for them. It makes integrations a lot easier for everybody, giving us accuracy of data and security as well because there’s more transparency in the system.
How has Zatpark responded to the pandemic and the way the team works?
We sent everyone home on 18 March 2020 ahead of the government announcement as we could see that the writing was on the wall. We had our disaster recovery or “snow” plan in place and already fully tested. Using VPN (virtual private network) access and existing VoIP (voice over internet protocol) phone systems we could work remotely securely, and everyone was at home until just before Christmas.
The phones got answered, we had Google and slack messaging systems we used internally, so we just moved online which worked pretty seamlessly. Celina, our director of operations, led a lot of regular social interactions, getting people to jump on a call for half an hour to catch up and support each other. We also ran some online socials and quiz nights which worked well. There are still only half a dozen people in the office and we are using this time until all the restrictions are lifted to go into a consultation phase with the staff to see what will work best for them individually, the team and the business.
As a tech provider, remote working has become almost a standard option for us, and I think a lot of developers are looking for that opportunity now. The sort of work they do lends itself to that – they collaborate well during their daily online “stand up” meetings, but most of what they do is heads down ‘in screen’, concentrating on the project they are working on so they will stay at home for now, whilst we work out what the world’s going to look like post-COVID.
Zatpark is more than just the management team and we recognise that without our staff we are nothing. They are highly qualified, and they strive to do the best possible job they can every day, “making every day better” through partnerships with our clients, other industry suppliers and also partnerships between departments.
The past year, despite all its challenges, has left us poised for growth. We currently have a recruitment drive underway and have plans to grow the team from 37 to 46, which means we’ll have even more experience to offer our clients as we look optimistically to the future.