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Tiny start-up tackles big driving hassle: Parking

Parking In Motion aims to become the universal database of open parking spots.

There are dozens of products and apps that can route you from one place to another by car. Many of these apps will even take real-time traffic into account and adapt directions to avoid congestion. What none of them can do is tell you where you're most likely to actually find a parking place once you're at your destination. That's what Parking In Motion is for.

This mobile app, in its early stages now, is mostly a directory of parking lots and garages. Like GasBag, a database of gas stations and the prices they charge, Parking In Motion shows you how much you're going to pay for parking at various lots. Users can update the data if it's inaccurate. Great feature: the app has arrows to show where garage entrances are.

Ultimately, the app will do much more, according to co-founder Sam Friedman. First of all, it will show which lots or garages are full. This information can't come from users--it'd be too late to be useful. Parking In Motion is instead working with garage operators to collect this data on a broader scale. But first it might have to help operators actually get that data themselves.

Parking In Motion can help you find garages and, in some cities, street parking too. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

Tighter integration with parking structure operators will eventually allow drivers to reserve spots and to pre-pay for them--possibly with a discount. This is where Parking In Motion will make its money, taking a percentage of those transactions.

The app will also, eventually, offer advice on street parking. It won't be able to direct you to a specific spot, unfortunately. Even though many cities are installing smart parking meters, the data collection is too slow to direct drivers to open spaces. Rather, Parking In Motion will collect data from users and meters and tell them which streets or areas are most likely to have open spots, and how long it will likely take to find them.

Down the line even further, Friedman has this vision: "Five years from now, you'll be able to get in your car, find parking on the street, and pay for it from within your car. And then if you're in a meeting and it's running over, you'll be able to re-up your meter from the conference table."

The company's flagship cities are Philadelphia and Santa Monica, Calif., where it has reservations and street parking data coming online. But it has garage data in about 300 cities, and the iPhone app is free and available in the App Store today.

It's a relationship business
Building the consumer-facing services are almost trivial for this company. The real challenge is getting good data. To get information from parking lots and garages, Parking In Motion will need to establish relationships with owners--and possibly help them upgrade their IT so they can report open spot numbers in real time. To get street parking information, Parking In Motion will have to either get the parking meter companies (there are a half-dozen of them) to provide data after winning approval from cities, or it will have to file Freedom Of Information requests to get the public-owned data. And it will have to do this hundreds of times.

And the company cannot rely on user-generated content (users are unlikely to alert the system when they find or leave a spot) nor even on using GPS-equipped phones as "probes" since it's hard to tell if a phone moving at a slow pace has just change from a person walking to a car driving slowly down a street. If the probes were built into cars, it'd work, but that's a whole new level of deal difficulty.

If--big "if"--the company can find a way to get this data, it will be able to not just profit from it directly, OpenTable-style, but also provide APIs (possibly fee-based) to every other navigation service provider out there. Think how much more useful your GPS device (or GPS app) would be if it calculated your arrival time after considering the time it takes to park.

Meanwhile, the company has to hope a bigger navigation provider, like Navteq (owned by Nokia) or Google, doesn't muscle in to the space.

The revenue upside is significant. Parking is an $80 billion annual business in the U.S., Friedman says.

There are many ways this business can falter. Getting accurate data to make a parking space finder is one of the biggest consumer data collection challenges I've covered. But I've rarely been rooting so much for a company to succeed, both for personal reasons and because I'd just like to see this problem finally solved.

• Competitors (of a sort) inlcude: Parkopedia, Best Parking, Streetline Networks
• On April 15, Reporters' Roundtable will cover the most recent advances in automobile navigation