A Chicago Tale of Parking, Innovation, Bad Deals and Better Options

SpotHero has, indeed, become my hero. The Expedia of local parking—pre-selling parking lot spaces, often at a discount—has made Chicago a little more do-able in the aftermath of the now fomer Mayor Daley’s parking privitization fiasco. 

Bargains can be especially good in the evening. And there is something slightly “treasure hunt” about it, too. Once you purchase a space (payment via Amazon, which is one-click easy and secure), you print out a map with directions that thoughtfully include details such as “the entrance will be on the right” (even though the street number suggests the left) and “just before Miller’s Pub.” 

It turns out there is an unexpectedly fascinating labyrinth of parking beneath Chicago’s streets. What the Palmer House underground garage, for example, may lack in user-friendly design (some really tight turns on the way down—iffy for an SUV), it makes up for in architectural detail (not the pretty kind, but the kind where you get to see the roots of a building) and Downton Abbey vibe. Two floors up and you find yourself in the Palmer’s “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore” lobby, surrounded by glorious ceiling frescos and Tiffany statues, strolling on whimsical Paisley carpeting. It is enough to make you forget where you were going.

Liberace was the resident pianist here until 1947—a startling stray fact and a reminder of an era, sadly bygone, when parking wasn’t quite such a problem. 

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It certainly is a problem now. Sitting in the sold-out Chase Auditorium (of "Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!" fame), listening to entrepreneurs give it their all the other night at a Technori Pitch, it occurred to me that the City could have used the services of start up It’s Agreedwhich provides online contracts designed to simplify and organize agreements—when it negotiated that gobsmackingly bad parking deal. 

Instead, taxpayers—and their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren—are saddled with a contract literally hundreds of pages long, and so badly written, the City is on the hook for millions of dollars worth of parking meter fees waived for the disabled, along with revenue lost when streets are closed for repair, movie shoots or neighborhood festivals. 

Should anyone be surprised that the city’s street parking sell off continues to look worse and worse?

Here’s a hint: the answer is no.

In a certain place and time—Chicago City Hall, 2008—a billion bucks may have seemed like a lot of dough for a few thousand antiquated parking meters.

Then Chicagoans realized that the city had also hocked its ability to control street traffic, granted police powers to a private entity, and committed to parking fee and fine increases for the next several decades

—Mick Dumke, Chicago Reader

The $1.5 billion Chicago received upfront for the 75-year deal (and has now spent) is, by some accounts, just a tenth of the revenue the meters will generate—even less if meter rates continue to skyrocket. Adding insult to injury, not only is the revenue lost to the Chicago, but a good chunk is departing the country, finding its way into the coffers of the government of Abu Dhabi. 

This means that billions of dollars that might have been spent to shore up and expand the metro area’s public transportation system, providing an affordable, safe, considerably less expensive and greener alternative, have been syphoned off. 

And that impacts Chicago’s competiveness. 

Over the last few months, nervous speculators have been driving oil prices to record levels, with the spector of $6 per gallon gasoline by summer. Good public transportion could easily become the key differentiator that shifts the value balance of one city over another—no tax incentives required. The (lean) bottom line: Companies need employees that can afford to commute. 

On the bright side, should gas prices go that high, fewer people will be able to afford to drive, leaving lots of privatized parking spaces empty—a sort of Don’t Occupy movement for cars. 

Now, juat add a carpooling service. For example, Zimride, a San Francisco-based start up that that just closed a $6 million funding round last fall. Like SpotHero, Zimride brokers unusued inventory—in this case, the seats in a car—adding a social network spin to the deal. Although to date primarily operating in colleage towns, they have, by their accounting, helped users travel over 100 million miles. 

So more people filling more seats in fewer cars, enjoying mutual savings, and finding bargain parking spots.  

Great public transportation is the best answer, but this could be, at least, a better one.

—J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

Think Bigger

It seems so sensible: Add voice to text messages. A smart phone is still a phone, designed to transmit sound. Which is why I found myself completely entranced by utellit, a small Chicago startup, at a recent “pitch” evening sponsored local website Technori

Founder Rishi Khullar’s epiphany? Profound annoyance at the rote Facebook response to the news of a friend’s birthday, i.e. “Happy Birthday!” scrawled endlessly on the celebrant’s wall. “Lame,” thought Khullar. Wouldn’t it be nicer to leave an old-fashioned voice message, but in new-fangled way? 

Wouldn’t it be in nicer still, thought I, to use the tech for humanitarian work or disaster response? Imagine emergency workers surveying a neighborhood leveled by an earthquake, recording detailed messages of the scene, then tucking them into geocoded text messages as shortened urls? This could take crisismapping to a whole new level. 

So exciting were the the possibilities, I whipped out an email to some of the best and brightest I know working in the humanitarian space. “Am I having a morning coffee moment, or is this really a good idea?”

It turns out it’s a really good idea. 

So much so, that many have been working on it, using open source tools. Eduardo Jezierski, CTO of InSTEDD* wrote:

…As ICT4D (ed. note: internet and communication technology for development) / social media / apps reach lower and lower swaths of the “pyramid,” voice becomes an increased need. Maternal child health services are not for doctors anymore: They involve mothers. The best, most valuable information post crisis is generated by—and curated by—the affected populations themselves, in their own language. 

Except from some privileged areas where text-based systems don’t run into the literacy, scripting, and dialect issues; voice is the key to involving a broader set of the population.

But what was fairly easy for the utellit team to set up here in the U.S. is much trickier elsewhere in the world, where smart phones are rare, telco infrastructure spotty and API’s come with lots of strings attached. 

All of this leaves a huge empowerment gap—communities can’t invent and deploy their own voice-like systems…

At InSTEDD our interest is in enabling a hundred apps like these bloom (without a dependency on iPhones, at least until they are common in rural india), invented by those that are part of, or close to, the communities with the needs; and (designed to be) integrated into the likes of Medic Mobile and Ushahidi.

We want any developer (wherever… in Nigeria…) that comes up with an idea like utellit to be able to implement it in days.

Working with Google.org and USAID, Ed’s team has been busy simplifying the creation of voice services to make them easier to build.  

We are building on top of open source switches (Asterisk/FreeSWITCH) direct VoIP integration and in some cases hardware integration to help folks build voice apps. 

These apps can span DIY-level for a few users; to national scale services by taking an approach similar to what we did with Nuntium

We are providing a simple HTTP API anyone can code to from any programming language to build almost any app they imagine; and then below that API  we allow a mix of rapid-deployment or operator-class “gateways” for the calls. 

Nicolas di Tada, InSTEDD’s Director or Platform Engineering provides more background and detail: Verboice - Listen and respond to the voice of your community.

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When Steve Jobs died, Wired writer Tim Carmody wrote eloquently about the profound impact of the iPod in the life of his young autistic son: 

…It may be a stretch to say Steve Jobs invented the iPod Touch or most of the technologies contained in it. But Steve Jobs certainly put it in my son’s hands, both by making it a sub-$200 device (and in our case, giving it away free with a laptop) and by helping to create an ecosystem of software applications for people with disabilities — perhaps especially communication disabilities…

The iPod wasn’t invented for people with disabilities, but nonetheless proved an answer to many prayers. That led to an interesting feedback look. The demo video for Siri, the new voice-command assistant, ends with a blind woman using her iPod to confirm a dinner date. 

Too often, startup tech pitches focus on a single, narrowly defined “haiku” problem: 

Hate waiting in line? / Pre-order equals happy / Download app today

Yet true breakthrough innovation demands taking the blinders off and noticing other possibilities (think Robin Williams pondering the potential of a pink scarf). A single brilliant insight can address many needs and trigger cascades of additional insights.

To think bigger, first you must begin to see bigger.

—  J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

* full disclosure: the TrackerNews Project was incubated at InSTEDD