Open data pilot helps Saint-Quentin citizens quickly find parking in city

by Cinthya Anand

Who among us hasn’t spent hours on a Sunday afternoon or before an important appointment, driving in circles looking for a place to park? If Belgian startup Communithings has its way, very soon you’ll be able to quickly pull up a map on your smartphone showing you vacant spots in the streets, saving you the hassle. Such a technology would be a godsend to local enforcers as well, as it would quickly show them which cars have outstayed their parking or are flouting rules.

Communithings, one of the startups that has paired up with the French city of Saint-Quentin as part of the SCIFI programme for open innovation in smart cities, worked with local authorities to run a pilot of their technology in a part of the city, using sensors to create a real-time map of parking spots in the area.

“Saint-Quentin, like many other cities, suffers from traffic congestion. Research shows that up to 30% of cars in congested downtown traffic were looking for parking. While these numbers may vary across cities, it is obvious this is a considerable part of street congestion. We realised that a smart parking system could greatly improve traffic flows in the city,” said Etay Oren, co-founder of Communithings. The study also showed that drivers spent an average of 8.1 minutes looking for parking!

Communithings was founded in 2014 by co-founders Etay Oren, Ann Demarche and David Gillot. The three of them worked for a multinational telecoms company before launching their own startup.

The Communithings solution is a turnkey platform, meaning it includes all the software and hardware needed to be quickly set up and running. It can use either or both IoT ground sensors in each spot along with cameras overlooking multiple spots, based on individual requirements. In the case of Saint-Quentin, both sensors and cameras were used. The system can also accommodate variable rate parking charges and reserved spots.

The Saint-Quentin local authority was able to use the data to improve enforcement of parking rules, thus serving the dual purpose of empowering drivers and helping the police to pick up on violations such as overtime parking. This helped to increase rotations, allowing more people to park on a given day.

The pilot was so successful that the city decided to extend the pilot and potentially expand the scheme to other parts of the city as well. The local police supported the scheme as it helped them patrol more efficiently. 

By working with SMEs, cities can innovate faster 

Being in the smart city sector can be a challenge for startups, says Etay. “Cities have their own ways of working, and often a specific mindset to solving issues. It takes time for decisions to be approved within budget constraints.”

“Sometimes everyone will agree to a new project at a meeting, but then you need to have another meeting, and another meeting and then a tender will need to be written. Very often, this process can take two years. This may be ok for large corporates, but for scale-ups focused on one vertical, this can be a killer,” he explains.

He makes the case that cities need to encourage startups as they drive innovation in the smart cities sector. “Given that innovation is largely driven by startups and not the corporates, because of the need for agility and the need to adapt to city’s requirements, such solutions can come much more easily from the smaller startups which are quick to adapt.”

The team was grateful for the support from the Saint-Quentin local authority, who approved the proof of concept and helped to get the project off the ground in a relatively short time. Having a successful pilot in Saint-Quentin also helped them to scale to other cities in France including Metz and Ajaccio, in partnership with Belgian telecoms company Orange. 

Open datasets help to empower citizens

The company’s smart parking technology makes use of open datasets whenever possible, helping cities to build dashboards where this information can be easily shared with residents. For example, the Belgian city of Liege has a real time map of parking availability on their administrative website. This makes the city friendlier to residents and visitors alike.

Communithings is working with close to 20 Belgian cities and have projects as far as in New Zealand. The company uses open APIs, with cross-platform integration support, so that in the future the resulting data can be used to help authorities plan cities better.

The technology is GDPR-compliant, with ground sensors only picking up on occupancy data. Any identifying information from the cameras is blurred at the source and stored locally for a limited duration to allow parking fines to be contested, after which it is deleted forever.

Ambassador for smart city entrepreneurs

Before we said goodbye, we asked Etay if he had any advice to share with entrepreneurs looking to make a mark in the smart cities sector.

“At the end of the day, I feel like an ambassador for others in my position. We are a bunch of crazy and brave people, in a sector that is so exciting on one end but also extremely challenging on the other end. The Saint-Quentin project gives us a glimpse of how startups can help more cities adapt and adopt in a quicker manner. Be it Mumbai or Brussels, cities everywhere face similar problems. If cities want to become smart, they need to give larger consideration to facilitating the adoption of such technologies.”

The SCIFI partners are putting together a report based on learnings from the 12 pilots which will be released in 2021, which will cover issues such as opening data, interoperability of solutions, co-creation and innovative procurement.  If you would like to receive a copy, REGISTER HERE.