Lawyer bots take the hassle out of fighting parking tickets and property taxes — and could cost local governments real revenue

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A new pain for cities.

After finding a parking ticket lashed to his windshield, Seattle resident Dan Lear normally would have bitten the bullet and paid up, even though he felt misled by street signage.

Instead, Lear decided to try his luck with DoNotPay, a free bot service that streamlines the process of contesting parking tickets. The service helped Lear win a dismissal in 2016, leaving him a little bit richer and Seattle a little bit poorer.

New technology-powered services like DoNotPay, WinIt and TurboAppeal are encouraging more people to challenge legal hassles like inaccurate tickets and property taxes online. While these tools can help citizens avoid unfair penalties, they also might tempt some users to game the system, and could strain the resources of local governments. These potential side effects might come at an inopportune time for municipalities, whose budgets may be squeezed under the new tax rules.

“I guess I’m torn between supporting my local government but also ensuring that people have the right to appeal things that they feel are not fair or not legal,” said the victorious Lear, who is an attorney by trade.

DoNotPay asks users a series of questions, such as whether a parking sign was difficult to read or a ticket had incorrect details, then produces a letter with a formal legal defense that drivers can mail in or submit online.

The free service has helped drivers across the U.S. and the U.K. squash more than 450,000 parking tickets representing $ 13 million in fines; users win dismissals more than 50 percent of the time, by founder Joshua Browder’s estimate. That compares to a dismissal rate of around 35 percent in Los Angeles and 21 percent in New York City.

Parking tickets are “used as a source of revenue, which is wrong, and something I’m trying to change for the longer term,” said Browder, who has been called the “Robin Hood of the internet” by the BBC. Local governments, he added, “generally don’t like me.”

Having recently clinched $ 1.1 million in seed funding, DoNotPay lists investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Greylock Partners and attorneys with the firm Wilson Sonsini. The company plans to expand into helping users fight property taxes and file for divorce, among other things.

WinIt, a mobile app that currently only services New York City but plans to expand this year, takes parking ticket challenges to the next level. It builds a legal defense with minimal or zero input, and then argues for a dismissal, often in court through a partner attorney, and proceeds “even if there’s a 5 percent chance that we can dismiss the ticket,” said WinIt CEO Ouriel Lemmel.

WinIt collects a fee — equal to half the fine — but only if it succeeds. Drivers can even sign up for WinIt’s “Ticket Guardian,” which will automatically challenge any new ticket associated with a customer’s license plate number as soon as it hits a government database.

Companies that depend on drivers are taking note: Ride-sharing app Via and delivery service Postmates both offer discounts on WinIt to their drivers.

WinIt expects to contest 3 percent to 4 percent of all New York City parking tickets this year, which could amount to well over 300,000 tickets, if 2018 ticket volume is similar to previous years. That could represent around $ 6 million in potential lost revenue for the city.

Appealing property taxes

At least one startup is also taking aim at a much larger source of municipal revenue: Property taxes.

Machine-learning-powered TurboAppeal makes it much easier for homeowners to challenge the property assessments used to levy property taxes. The company had raised more than $ 7 million from investors including online mortgage lender Guaranteed Rate, KGC Capital, Hyde Park Venture Partners and real estate brokerage @properties before being acquired by Paradigm Tax Group for an undisclosed sum last year.

Homeowners can get detailed data and instructions that can cut the time needed to prepare a compelling appeal from hours to 30 minutes, according to Stace Hunt, marketing director at Paradigm. Priced at $ 49, the automated service typically costs much less than a property tax attorney.

Amanda McMillan, a Chicago realtor who used TurboAppeal to shave $ 700 off her 2015 tax bill, said a few clients who probably would not have otherwise fought their property taxes followed her advice and gave TurboAppeal a whirl. To their delight, they won reductions, she said.

TurboAppeal had reportedly generated more than 100,000 property tax appeals as of May 2017; it covers 64 counties and 23 million single-family homes and has claimed a success rate of more than 75 percent in the past.

Some data suggests that self-service companies like TurboAppeal and DoNotPay have lots of room to grow.

The opportunity

Public New York City data, along with statistics provided to Recode by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, showed that fewer than 10 percent of parking tickets were challenged in those two cities over the last few years, while less than 5 percent of properties in all but one of New Jersey’s 21 counties saw their tax bills appealed in 2016.

But more fine dismissals and property tax reductions would mean less money for local schools and police departments, noted Megan Randall, a research associate at the Urban Institute. Property taxes reportedly make up roughly 30 percent of local government revenue nationwide.

Illustrating how services that target this revenue could pose a fiscal nuisance, New Jersey’s Monroe County was forced to issue a bond in 2011 to cover $ 5 million in refunds due to a spike in property tax appeals. The increase was driven by the housing meltdown, though the town’s finance director at the time also cited attorneys “trying to convince residents to file mass appeals,” the Star-Ledger reported.

Parking tickets, meanwhile, account for less than 1 percent of local government revenue nationwide, but some municipalities are much more reliant on fines than others.

For example, in 2013, 21 of the 90 municipalities in Missouri’s St. Louis County collected more than 20 percent of revenue from court fines and fees, of which parking and speeding tickets are a large contributor.

Drops in traffic tickets can cut into state budgets, too. A decrease in ticket volume forced the Nevada Supreme Court to seek a bailout in 2015. DoNotPay and WinIt can help users fight moving violations such as speeding tickets, so they could also nibble away at revenue from a range of traffic fines, not just parking tickets.

A jump in appeals would also increase the workload of municipal employees who are tasked with reviewing ticket and tax challenges.

“At this point, we don’t have an automated process, so it may cost our constituents money,” said Mark Granado, manager of parking operations and support for the LA Department of Transportation.

Moreover, many people may use these services to try to game the system, not to right a wrong.

WinIt and DoNotPay can help users get off on technicalities, such as if a ticket incorrectly describes a car’s color or make. Such errors can cost big bucks: New York City recently announced that it would refund a reported $ 26 million worth of parking tickets due to the omission of a zero from the ordinance code on roughly 500,000 tickets.

The government finance, parking enforcement and county appraiser employees that Recode spoke to said they didn’t believe that services such as WinIt, DoNotPay or TurboAppeal have boosted ticket and tax challenges so far, but generally acknowledged the potential for this to occur.

Some, including Granado, the Los Angeles parking enforcement official, said they would welcome services that professionalize more appeals, while a few employees encouraged consumers to consider using government systems, questioning whether third-party services add value.

Asked about concerns with their services, WinIt, DoNotPay and TurboAppeal emphasized that they are simply empowering more consumers to exercise their legal rights.

Municipalities could try to deal with more appeal volume by increasing property tax rates and fines or by investing in technology. But this could be harder than ever, given that the recent tax reform may impose downward pressure on property taxes, among other budget constraints.

“In an ideal world, governments would invest in the necessary resources to adapt,” Randall said in an email. “However, in reality, we often become reliant on private-sector actors who derive material benefit from a complex and opaque tax system.”

Teke Wiggin is a Brooklyn-based reporter who covers technology, labor and housing. Reach him @tkwiggin.

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How to sync your local iTunes library when you’re subscribed to Apple Music

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Apple Music is one of the best music streaming options when you have a local library of unreleased songs, live concerts, or remixes. But this method will also allow you to sync hi-fiedlity music such as ALAC to your iPhone.

While not completely obvious, it is possible to sync your local library while also having a cloud-based Apple Music library on your iPhone or iPad.

more…

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Google Maps doubles points for Local Guides reviews

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The number of points awarded to Google Maps Local Guides for submitting reviews is doubling from five to 10, Google announced in a blog post today. Google says the change is rolling out “over a few weeks.”

This is the latest development in an ongoing campaign to increase user-submitted content. Back in October, the Local Guides program added badges for different types of contributions, and Maps increased the amount of points awarded for “detailed reviews”—those longer than 200 characters—from the base five up to 10 in November.

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Chrome will soon finally support casting local files

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If you’ve ever used Chrome’s casting functionality, you’ve likely come across one of its more frustrating shortcomings. While it works great for casting an online video, a tab, or even your entire screen, Chrome simply cannot cast a local audio or video file natively, forcing you to resort to using a third-party extension or standalone app. Fortunately, the Chrome team is currently experimenting with adding the ability to cast local files directly from within the browser, according to the well-known Googler and ‘Chromium evangelist,’ François Beaufort.

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Chrome OS 65 lands with video profile pics, local search, and more

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For the past couple weeks now, ever since Google published Chrome 65, we’ve been wondering when the next iteration of Chrome OS would go official. After all, we’ve been following the platform’s development quite closely, and have been curious to see what would make the cut. Well, our answers are finally here, as a little earlier this week Google started rolling out Chrome OS 65 to the Stable channel.

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Plex v6.15 adds on-device audio transcoding, local streaming to Chromecast, and more

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On the heels of a new Chromecast UI rolling out to everyone, Plex is starting a staged rollout of a new version of the Android app. This one comes with a few significant changes that make your smartphone more capable for playback and streaming. You can finally do some on-the-fly transcoding from Android, and local files work with casting.

The new update is v6.15, and here’s the full changelog.

WHATS NEW:
  • Local Playback: support for Plex Companion and Chromecast, including on-device audio transcoding.

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Local Newspapers Are Essential for Saving Us Through Science (Which, Of Course, Means They’re Dying Right Now)

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Your local rag has far more value to your community than reporting on the best pancake joint or the complaints of that guy who had his yard TP’d. True story, read all about it: Local newspapers are actually valuable tools for science.

A recent STAT article highlighted one surprising use of local newspapers: tracking the outbreak of infectious disease. Epidemiologists use local papers to identify outbreaks in their infant stages — way before they’re big enough to make national papers — and forecasting how they might evolve.

For example, computational epidemiologist Maia Majumder told STAT local newspapers were essential when she and her colleagues at the HealthMap disease projection project tried figuring out the source of a 2016-2017 outbreaks of mumps in northwestern Arkansas. While it was difficult to get data from the Arkansas Department of Public Health, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette freely provided Majumder with the context she needed: the region had the highest rate of vaccine refusal in the state, and that the disease was spreading within a community of Marshall Islands immigrants even though they’d been vaccinated.

Yet local newspapers are also vanishing in many places, thanks to falling readership. A recent data project by the Columbia Journalism Review shows that many parts of the United States, particularly in the Midwest, Southeast, and Alaska, have zero local newspapers to rely on. Epidemiologists are worried that this data gap could lead to researchers missing outbreaks, or create gaps in their patterns of how diseases spread, which can make it difficult to control.

But disease outbreaks aren’t the only data point that scientific research can target using local newspapers. Local papers have also been essential in tracking the impacts and unspoken threats from broader changes, like climate change.

In Houston, The Texas Tribune became famous for a seemingly “psychic” article that predicted the city’s unchecked growth and proximity to a warming Gulf of Mexico would soon leave it vulnerable to a hurricane. A little more than a year later, Hurricane Harvey hit, devastating Houston. But, it was pointed out, the Tribune‘s writers weren’t consulting a crystal ball when they wrote their piece; “It was the natural outgrowth of great journalism by reporters who know their subjects and communities well and have covered these issues extensively.”

Reporters that know and can follow up on changes and rumors only told around town as local reporters can are able to see trends too minimal for major papers to pick up on. They also track shifts based on local interest, providing record of change as a process (rather than one only characterized by disaster). For example, research found that local newspapers have increased their sea level rise coverage at a higher rate than that of larger papers since 2012, with The Miami Herald’s coverage of the topic passing up that of The New York Times.

Our Warming World: The Future of Climate Change [INFOGRAPHIC]
Click to View Full Infographic

The context that local news provides is especially important given the “shifting baselines” that come with climate change. This term refers to our tendency to adjust our expectations based on what we see as our current reality. As eloquently described by fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly, who coined the term in 1995: “We transform the world, but we don’t remember it. We adjust our baseline to the new level, and we don’t recall what was there … Every generation will use the images that they got at the beginning of their conscious lives as a standard and will extrapolate forward.”

A recent survey by the Society of Environmental Journalists found that nearly 7 of 10 respondents were “very interested” in covering the local angle of climate change, but nearly 6 of 10 said downsizing in their organization makes it more difficult to do so. Making that possible is up to readers everywhere. Journalism is part of our collective memory, but without support of local news, we risk having some serious gaps in recall.

The post Local Newspapers Are Essential for Saving Us Through Science (Which, Of Course, Means They’re Dying Right Now) appeared first on Futurism.

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Express Wi-Fi by Facebook connects you to local hotspots in developing countries [APK Download]

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Facebook’s Internet.org initiative was designed to extend better internet access to developing nations, which it does so via its Free Basics service in 63 countries across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and South America. The platform’s latest app, Express Wi-Fi, aims to connect users to connect to public hotspots offered by the company for a fee.

 

Express Wi-Fi is already live in Kenya, India, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Indonesia, where you’ve needed to log in through a web portal or via a carrier until now.

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Apple ‘Lose your wallet’ campaign lands in Los Angeles with discounts for local shops

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Apple continues efforts to bolster Apple Pay adoption, and is currently hosting a "Lose your wallet" event in Los Angeles, offering users of the service exclusive discounts on food, fashion and more.
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YouTube TV adds Seattle Sounders local broadcasts to its MLS slate

YouTube TV has landed another Major League Soccer deal, and this time you might be more likely to notice. As part of a multi-year agreement, the internet TV service is now the official streaming option for all Seattle Sounders FC games. Similar to th…
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