Parking app under fire pleads its case to San Francisco officials

Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

Sweetch’s developers say it’s nothing like MonkeyParking, a pay-to-park app that drew the ire of San Francisco city officials. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

SAN FRANCISCO — When they learned they were next in line for a cease-and-desist letter from the City Attorney, three young entrepreneurs made haste to City Hall to salvage their dream of making circling the block for parking a thing of the past.

Parking app Sweetch lets you alert prospective parkers that you’ll be moving your car. The person leaving the spot gets $4 in credit and the person arriving pays $5. Positioning itself as a community app, Sweetch lets drivers donate the money to local charities. (If you use the Web app version, like we did when we took it for a test drive, the money is only symbolically exchanged. Your credit card details and hard cash are only required for the iOS app.)

“It was really cool that they were open to talking to us — we clarified that we’re not auctioning parking spots or holding them, we’re not anything like MonkeyParking, and they understood that,” Sweetch co-founder Hamza Ouazzani Chahdi told Cult of Mac by phone, adding that they spoke with two deputies at the San Francisco City Attorney’s office for about an hour. City Attorney spokesman Matt Dorsey confirmed that officials met with Sweetch but didn’t have specifics on whether the cease-and-desist order had been halted as a result of the meeting.

The recent statement by City Attorney Dennis Herrera announced a cease-and-desist for parking auction app MonkeyParking. Sweetch was called out in the statement as being next up for a similar cease-and-desist later this week.

The true intent of the app, Chahdi said with zeal, is to make the city a better place to live. “At the end of the day, we really care about making this city better,” he said. “We have the same goal in mind as San Francisco officials.”

While the mechanism seems somewhat complicated (is the money virtual or not? going to charity or not?) it is the fruit of what Ouazzani Chahdi says are 18 months of intense scrutiny of local traffic data and a bunch of false starts when the app started life as a UC Berkeley graduate school project.

The team ruled out sensors as too expensive and not speedy enough with the go-go pace of city life - when you’re driving somewhere, he says, people want to know if there will be a spot by the time they get there. They also tried to get frustrated parkers to help each other out for free, but it didn’t work. “We all know how bad parking is here,” he added, “but what’s funny is that people weren’t willing to report the information without some kind of incentive.”  After starting out at $2 and discovering it wasn’t enough to motivate people to alert the app they were leaving, they settled on $5. That kind of latte money isn’t going to make people stand around for an hour.

“We’re academics, not nerds. We’re interested in any incentive that gets people to help each other out,” he said. “We are really different from an auction system. We’d introduce people giving each other lollipops if that would work.”

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Nicole MartinelliNicole Martinelli heads up Cult of Mac Magazine, our weekly publication available on iTunes. You can find her on Twitter and Google+. If you're doing something new, cool and Apple-related, email her.

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