IBM launches city parking analytics system

IBM's Smarter Parking Starter Kit equips parking meters with sensors and analyzes the resulting information

IBM has launched a system designed to help cities ease parking congestion and collect more parking fees, the company announced Wednesday. The service could also help motorists find parking spaces more easily in crowded urban areas.

"The existing parking systems are pretty inefficient [in terms] of how cities manage them," said Vinodh Swaminathan, IBM's director of intelligent transportation systems. "Think of a parking spot as a revenue-producing asset. With the ability to instrument these assets, we can manage them far more efficiently," he said.

IBM is offering this system in conjunction with San Francisco-based startup Streetline, which offers remote sensors that can determine if a parking space is taken by a car. IBM provides the analytical software, by way of a cloud service, that aggregates data from these sensors so it can be used to better understand how a city's parking spaces are used over time.

The IBM/Streetline offering is a good example of the growing market for what IT analysis firm IDC refers to asIntelligent Systems, or scores of networked embedded devices tethered to back end analysis systems. Overall, IDC expects the embedded systems market will generate over $2 trillion in revenue worldwide by 2015. This offering is part of IBM's Smarter Transportation line of integrated system offerings for cities and public transportation systems.

For this offering, called the Smarter Parking Starter Kit, Streetline will provide two sensors for each parking space. One will determine if a car is parked at the space, and the second sensor can read the parking meter, to determine if the customers had paid and how much time is left on the meter. The collected data is communicated through a wireless mesh network back to an Internet gateway, which conveys the results to the IBM service.

Motorists looking for parking can take advantage of this data through a free Streetline free mobile phone application for the iPhone and Android. Called Parker, this app can alert users of nearby parking spaces. The cities can also expose the data for other third-party applications as well.

IBM will use its Cognos business intelligence software to parse the data and generate reports and statistics for an online dashboard for government managers. The company has assembled a number of pre-built reports for the system. A top level report provides a high-level overview of how much money a city's parking spaces are generating. Another report focuses on operational efficiency, looking at the percentage of time that the meters are used. A more detailed report can be generated to identify when during the day parking spots are used, or where in the city parking spots are most widely used.

Cities may want to develop their own analysis as well, using this data. They could use the data to price parking spaces more effectively. They can foresee demand for parking spaces and provide nearby alternatives to ease congestion.

Such a system could also make cities more pleasant for their visitors, Swaminathan said. In the first of what it is promised to be a yearly study, IBM surveyed over 8,000 commuters in 20 cities around the world, including such cities as Chicago, Los Angeles, New Delhi, Bangalore, Nairobi and Milan.

The results indicate a cross-cultural frustration with the inability to find parking in popular urban areas. For instance, in the past year, nearly 6 out of every 10 drivers have abandoned a search for a parking space, forgoing their plans. More than a quarter have gotten in an argument with another motorist over a parking spot.

Such extended parking hunts are bad for the city as well: IBM has estimated that 30 percent of city congestion stems from motorists looking for parking spaces. Swaminathan cited a year-long study that showed that, within a 15 block district in Los Angeles, drivers drove around for an excess of 950,000 miles, producing 730 tons of carbon dioxide and using 47,000 gallons of gas.

Swaminathan did not reveal pricing for the Smarter Parking Starter Kit, though he said it would be willing to work with cities to arrive at creative financial terms. He argued that the system would pay for itself as cities make more money by monitoring and managing their parking spots. They could also use it as the basis for providing more advanced services later on, such as the ability for users to extend parking time through an smart phone app.

IBM found Streetline through IBM's SmartCamp program, where startups around the world can compete to partner with IBM and provide technologies for Big Blue's SmarterPlanet-themed system offerings. Streetline was the 2010 winner of the SmartCamp World Finals, besting over 600 other entries.

"Streetline was a young startup company with no major funding but it had a very robust solution," said Claudia Fan Munce, who is the IBM managing director of the company's venture capital group. It was a good example of a new technology showing "how to use IT to enable better, smarter ways of people to live," Munce said.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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