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Another month, another business plan
Yes, yes -- this is an idiotic time of night to be coming up with a new company. But inspiration struck while contemplating the increasingly difficult parking situation near mindways' place, and I want to write this down while I think of it. It's prosaic, but just the sort of silly-but-useful startup that can make a decent profit fairly fast.

The name of the site is something like OnStreet.com. (Which is currently squatted.) Its purpose is simple: show me the nearest legal parking to where I want to go. The user interface is probably a Google Maps mashup. I select a location on Google Maps; tell OnStreet that that's where I want to be; and it shows the parking options as a map overlay.

What makes this different from most of what I've seen so far is that the data is crowdsourced -- you encourage people to add info to the map about what is legal and what isn't on the street, and provide easy tools to, say, mark that this location that claims to be legal no longer is. Not clear exactly how you get people to add data, but at the least you provide public credit and ego-boo for the people who add lots of info to the database. Of course, it should also let you describe parking lots and garages, with info about how much they cost, but cheaper on-street parking is the heart of the idea. (Indeed, garages might need to pay a little to get into the listings.)

It should grok the notion that certain spaces are only legal at certain times of day, and have a way to say that, say, this block has three legal spaces, as well as how much the meters cost.

You should be able to easily specify filters describing what you are willing to cope with when looking for parking -- whether you prefer to pay more money, or walk further. (And how far is "too far" for you.)

The thing should have a mobile app if at all possible, because that's where it would really sing. For example, it should have an Android app that adds a button to your main screen; push that, and it means "show me the nearest legal parking to where I am right now", and pulls that right up as a Layer in Google Maps -- instant, super-useful gratification. If possible, it should hook into Google Maps Navigation, and actually direct you to the nearest places that might be legal. There should be a big button that says, "No, there's nothing here -- take me to some other alternative". It should keep track of that information and build a statistical database -- if there never seems to be available space here at a particular time of day, stop routing people there. Ideally, it should keep track of when it last sent someone to a particular location, and have a sense that that location is now more crowded.

It should *not* keep any user information. Frankly, it doesn't have to: there's plenty of money to be made just from the statistics, and the immediate knowledge of where the user is. So in these days where people are starting to actually get a little privacy-conscious, you can make a big deal about it *not* doing any sort of creepy tracking.

The best part is that it has a rock-solid business plan. It's advertising supported, but can charge a *hefty* premium for advertising, because it's strictly location-based -- it shows ads for businesses that are close to the specified parking space and target destination, and between them. Businesses buying advertisements can specify filters for things like how far is relevant for them, and what hours are relevant, so that the service is less likely to show an ad for your service if you're closed. Ideally, the ads shown are slightly randomized (or at least, rotated), taking time and location into account. The plan might have an auction or sliding scale, so that you pay more for a parking space right in front of your business than for one two blocks away.

For extra points, it might have extremely simple search capabilities built in. For example, a button for Food would highlight all the food-related advertisers near here. You could charge quite a lot extra for that.

Okay, yes, there's one problem with the business plan: Google aren't stupid, and if this seems to be making money, they'll eventually build it into Google Maps proper. But even that is potentially fine. The service is theoretically decently cheap to build and run (there's some serious programming involved, but it's probably much easier than most of the projects I do). So you set it up, make some modest money for a while, and your eventual likely exit strategy is to get bought by Google for at least some good kicking-around money.

That's the heart of the idea. I suspect it's not too terrible to implement, and would be popular in these cash-constrained times -- giving people a good tool for finding onstreet parking (rather than just expensive garages) seems to fit the zeitgeist. I'm rather too employed to do much with it right now, but if one of my friends wants to run with it, go for it -- just give me some credit for the idea, and maybe some options if it goes anywhere...

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Something I've been thinking for a long time is missing from Google Maps (which probably means I just haven't found it yet) is time. To wit, I want directions from Point X to Point Y at 5 PM on a Thursday; choose a route based on the historical traffic patterns, closed roads, etc. for that time and day. It sounds like that's one of the significant components to what you have in mind. If you (or some other reader) came up with a good UI and a good implementation for this....

They're most of the way there. They do have the data -- if you open Google Maps (the desktop version), ask for directions, and turn on Traffic, there's a small "change" link that lets you specify a particular day and time; it will make its best guess at the traffic for that time.

They *don't* have that fed into the routing information yet, but frankly routing is still their weak spot. Google Maps Navigation is quite a good GPS in most ways, but has some pretty horrible blind spots in its routing algorithms: it does a poor job of taking even current traffic conditions into account, has *astonishingly* strong big-road biases (it hates, hates, hates back roads, to a completely irrational degree), and is extremely leery of ever sending you down a road if it doesn't have current concrete information.

I do expect that'll get better, though: it's early days yet. And yes -- once they get their current-information routing right, it's a very small step to taking expected traffic conditions into account.

(At which point, they can implement the dream integration that I've mentioned before: the Google Maps / Google Calendar hookup, that calculates how long it will take you to get to your appointment based on expected traffic conditions, and notify you at the appropriate time to leave...)

In my experience, though, the hard part about finding on-street parking isn't finding a spot; it's finding an empty spot. I don't think you can crowdsource that.

My experience may be too limited, though, since I don't drive much in big cities.

Could you make it give you the most efficient circling pattern while you look for a spot and the odds of actually finding an empty one there? (I'm not a programmer so I have no idea how hard that would be to implement.)

Clever. I'm not sure whether "most efficient" is tractable, but I'm sure that it could at least come up with a *good* route, yes...

There are places that have sensors for whether spots are taken, but you're not likely to have anything useful like that for on-street parking any time soon, so the best you could do was a predictive model.

You'd want to focus on the mobile app, and have a big button that says "I found a spot here", so you can track where people actually end up parking. This gives you a way of improving your recommendations without needing users to put a lot of effort into writing up spots (though you'd have there be an option for people to give more info, too).

Seems like a fun project, and very doable. Let me know if you find people interested in actually working on it.

Actually, I might not even bother with the "I found a spot" button. My guess is that people wouldn't use it -- once I find a space, I want to park and get where I'm going. But you can be cleverer about it: if the user turns off the app, odds are strong that they have parked, so you can add that as a weak but reasonably high-probability datum.

(Although, all that said, yes -- it would be worth having a dead-simple "I'm parked *Right Here*" button as a button on the Android main screen, to make it so easy for people to pro-actively mark spaces.)

On thinking about it, the app does have one major crowd-sourcing advantage: once it got any penetration at all, the companies who are advertising with you have a powerful incentive to make sure that every nearby space is marked. I'd bet that they would wind up doing most of the data-entry for you, so long as you make it easy enough...

Another month, another business plan

If you press the "I found a spot" button, the app remembers where you parked for you.

Re: Another month, another business plan

Oh, sure -- my point is simply that most people won't even bother to press the button. But stopping and turning off the app may be a good enough proxy in many cases...

Re: Another month, another business plan

I think he meant that this helps with the "now where the heck did I put my car?" problem, though for most people that's a problem in large parking lots rather than on the street.

Re: Another month, another business plan

Oh, I see. Yes, that's quite clever -- it even provides people with an incentive to press the button. Neat: I hadn't thought of that enhancement, but it's clearly a useful one...

Obviously not everyone's going to use a "I'm parked here" option, but I feel like it'd still be useful, because people aren't naturally going to turn off the app right where their parked; they could do it when they see a space down the block, or five minutes later when they get to their destination and want to use Four Square.

Yes and no. In many cases, simply finding the legal parking is a challenge. Keep in mind that, in many cities, a large fraction of the parking is resident-only, so it's often a challenge to figure out where the meters even *are* near where you are.

Example: I was meeting Gundormr for dinner the other day in Cambridge. The obvious parking was all taken, and *most* of the parking nearby was resident-only. I did eventually find open metered spaces, only about three blocks away, but it was totally through luck -- there was no obvious reason to believe that that side street would be metered.

And keep in mind that the Big "Nothing Here" Button *is* crowdsourcing the free-space data. That's the beauty of it: you build learning algorithms behind the tool, that are paying attention to where people are *actually* finding space. (Maybe coupled with some smart semi-randomization of where you send people, so the tool learns fairly fast and is less subject to local minima.) The best crowdsourced tools are always the ones that learn from what people simply happen to be doing. If they press the Big Button, this space is a failure; if they leave the app, they've probably parked, so it's a success. Either way, you have more information for next time...

Interesting. My GPS will show me parking options near the location I'm at, but it is a fixed database of information. Concepts of time of day are plausibly implementable, but I suspect are not. Changes in local streetside parking status are impossible. And I'm not even sure it tracks streetside parking, and might only show lots.

I suspect this would be an incredible native iPhone app. It can tap into the built in maps, location awareness tools, and if iAds supports location aware ads, a better ad platform. Even without iAds, you could charge a nominal fee for the app. I don't know about Android capabilities, but a similar Native app might work there too.

But fundamentally, I see heavy use from people who don't look for parking until they arrive at their destination, so a mobile version (which has some inherent design differences from a standard web-based version, even if smartphones can access the web) should be part of the plan from the beginning.

Edited at 2010-05-22 01:20 pm (UTC)

Android can do basically the same things. (In general, the differences between iPhone and Android are more political than anything else: functionally, it's usually a good bet that they are similar.)

But yes: I think the mobile app is really where the idea lives or dies. I can see it getting modest use from the desktop, but likely 1-2 orders of magnitude more from mobile. The "Find Me Parking Now" button comes closer to a simple killer app than anything I've thought of in quite a while...

No good idea goes unimplemented for long. (And this did scream out as a prime app for Google.) Thanks for the pointer...

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