Monday, December 18, 2006

Needle in a Haystack

There's been a little buzz the last few weeks about systems that help drivers find a place to park.For anyone who's been met with the "Lot Full" sign, it certainly sounds like a good idea. And there are worse things than being turned away by "Lot Full": I pulled into a parking garage in Lowell, Massachusetts, a couple of years ago and slipped into a slowing moving stream of cars looking for non-existent spaces. After hunting for 20 or so minutes, I drove out in frustration. At least they didn't have the nerve to try to charge me for my time served.

Trawling around for info on these parking systems brought me to ISpot, a local (Cambridge) company that has a pretty good idea - "iSpot technology provides a vision-based monitoring infrastructure to allow for real-time situation analysis and escalation", which translates into "cameras" - about finding the needle of a parking space in the haystack of a mall, stadium, or airport parking facility. It's not clear if they're getting any traction - the web-site looks untouched since a burst of publicity in 2005.

But the other local hot-shot parking finder, the one more recently in the news, is an eCommerce hustle called SpotScout with a tag-line - parking the mobile generation - that I think precludes me, even though I'm a parking-hungry urbanite. And two nifty approaches: SpotScout - Find Parking Before You Get There, and SpotCast - Cash in Your Unused Parking Space.

The premise is that garages, parking lots, and those with private parking lost can make information on available space (and spot-pricing - gotta love the free market) available to those who subscribe to SpotScout, who can then reserve the space. SpotScout gets a cut of the transaction.

That seems straightforward enough.

But it could get certainly get exceedingly ugly when the SpotCasters start casting their eyes on public, on-street spaces. They don't have all the details yet available on their site, and they've got all kinds of caveats there, but here's how OnStreet SpotCasting would work, in their words:

Mary Jones can sell the information of the time of her departure and the exact location to an incoming driver. NOTE: She is not selling the space, but information ONLY.

Right. I'm the incoming driver who paid for the information ONLY and I show up at Mary Jones space, only to find another incoming driver, say Maureen Rogers of the non-mobile generation, who has, with her very own eyes, spotted Mary Jones getting into her car and is sitting there with her flashers on waiting for Mary Jones to drive off. Mary Jones, of course, wants to wait there for the incoming driver who is paying for the information ONLY, but who really believes he's paid for the spot, to show up. Because, of course, the information is ONLY as good as its ability to yield a real parking space. What Mary Jones and the incoming driver have failed to count on is the dogged determination of Maureen Rogers of the non-mobile generation to wait it out. Mary's got to leave sometime. Or the incoming driver has to give up and find his own spot.

Sure, the incoming driver can come back and key Maureen Rogers' car later. Or find a free space in front of or behind it and ram her car bumpers so that they're even lumpier than they are already from all these years of street parking. But how many times are people going to pay for this scenario?

A few weeks ago, I saw a woman standing in parking place on Beacon Street, trying to hold a metered parking space for someone who wasn't quite there yet. As the driver she was not holding the space for tried to back in, it turned into a game of chicken between the driver and the place-holder. Or maybe it was more like a cock-fight, with passers-by forming a crowd evenly divided between those yelling at the placeholding woman and those screaming at the driver. My contribution to world peace that day was to point out that there was an open space three cars up.

Imagine if the woman standing in the space was Mary Jones, who'd just sold the information. And that the guy backing in was Maureen Rogers of the non-mobile generation. And the generation-m driver who'd purchased the info from Mary Jones showed up...

This one certainly could have gotten ugly.

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