Between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I visited and spoke with a dozen Israeli tech startups last week. One of the highlights was certainly Parko, a parking-assistant app launching in Tel Aviv in the next few weeks and, with any luck, in a number of big U.S. cities by the end of the year. I’m crossing my fingers that Parko makes it here to Toronto because, as TomTom’s recent congestion index indicated, we need all kinds of help when it comes to traffic and parking.
Parko is essentially a crowd-sourcing app that connects users looking for parking spots. When you first launch the app, you register the make, model and colour of your car. From there, you can tell the app that you’re either looking for a parking spot or just about to leave one. Depending on which end you’re on, you’ll get a notification that a nearby user is either leaving or looking, at which point you can choose to make the transaction or not.
Transaction is actually an appropriate word because the app doesn’t just rely on the kindness of strangers to work. Users are incentivized to volunteer their parking status with rewards of virtual coins. If you want to take advantage of Parko and actually secure one of those about-to-be-vacated spots, you have to – you guessed it – spend some of those coins. (They can also be purchased for real money, naturally).
The app is the brainchild of Tomer Neu-Ner and Itai David, a pair of entrepeneurs who are typical of Israel’s startup scene by virtue of their youth (both are under 30). Where Parko gets interesting, Neu-Ner says, is that much of its processes occur on your phone passively and without the use of the GPS, which would drain a lot of battery power if it was constantly running.
Here’s a video of how it works:
The app is based on David’s algorithms, which make use of cellphone tower triangulation, the user’s habits and the phone’s various sensors. Parko can, for instance, tell whether your phone is lying flat in your pocket – indicating that you’re probably driving – or hanging vertically and bouncing, which means you’re likely walking.
The app is impressive because the duo seem to have thought of everything – Neu-Ner satisfactorily answered every question our group of journalists tossed at him. There’s Facebook integration so that drivers can use their real names if they want, and they’re working on a VoIP function that will let users actually call each other.
They’ve also got an eBay-like feedback mechanism, where users can give other drivers a thumbs up or thumbs down. That way, you can determine whether you want to wait two minutes for that user who just accepted your spot to show up. If his or her feedback rating is low, you may decide to instead give your spot to someone else.
Parko’s potential is simple to understand. As Neu-Ner put it, the average Tel Aviv resident wastes 24 minutes a day looking for parking. Taken collectively, that adds up to a year of a person’s life. And all those people circling the block looking for parking are also contributing to traffic congestion, something Torontonians and residents of other big cities know all too well. Not surprisingly, the app took first place in Google’s recent Israel Mobile Challenge.
There is one big potential downside to Parko, however. Like all crowd-sourced apps, it’s going to rely heavily on attracting a critical mass of users fast. If a only handful of users download the app and then see there’s no one offering them parking spots, they’ll stop using it and ultimately forget about it. Without fast word-of-mouth, Parko might end up dead before it even gets a chance.
It’ll be a while yet before it comes to Toronto, if it ever does. But if it works as advertised, I’ll certainly be talking it up.