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Three CEOs of Parking Innovation: an interview with Piers Higgs, Gaia Resources

Three companies progressed through the Parking Innovation Challenge, run by Transport for NSW in 2020. In this three-part blog series, we sat down with the people at the helm of these organisations to discuss the parking ecosystem, the innovation challenge process, and the exciting progress being made by each company. 

In parts one and two we spoke to Elizabeth Zealand, CEO of Spot Parking, and Mosstyn Howell, founder and CEO of UbiPark. Our third and final interview is with Piers Higgs from Gaia Resources, the company behind ParkHereMate, a proof-of-concept project undertaken through the Parking Innovation Challenge. 

Piers is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Gaia Resources, who established the company in 2004. They are an environmental technology consultancy that responsibly delivers sustainable solutions. Put simply, the aim of Gaia Resources is to deliver technology solutions to help organisations better manage the environment.

“This mission has evolved over time as we realised that we needed to look at the more broad triple-bottom line approach to look at social and economic areas as well.” Piers said. 

“So now we look at delivering solutions more holistically - with the aim of making the world a better place.”

ParkHereMate is their first foray into the parking space, with the proof-of-concept project focused on how a solution like this could improve people’s lives. 

“The ParkHereMate proof-of-concept was seen in that context as well, because we could clearly see that providing clear parking guidance in a non-distracting way could help improve people's lives, even in a small way. There is real potential here to increase driver and pedestrian safety, and to reduce fossil fuel emissions by ensuring that people don’t drive around in circles looking for parking spaces.  We wanted to help people reduce their stress levels and make those incremental but important contributions to improving the planet.”

When asked about the biggest challenges faced by customers in terms of parking, Piers paints a picture that any driver will recognise. 

“In urban areas - particularly in places like the Waverley City Council - there is a lot going on at once. Balancing safe driving while trying to understand parking rules can be stressful and problematic - and the rules change. Where you might be able to park for two hours in the morning becomes a clearway in the afternoon. The rules on weekdays are different on weekends, and this can change depending on the month or season. Add in permit zones and other conditions, and you've got a lot to have to read off the signs. The challenge is to make headway of all these rules and to present them in a way that works for the end user.”

Through the Parking Innovation Challenge, Gaia Resources have developed a feature-rich smartphone app concept aimed specifically at addressing that challenge. 

“The team set out with the aim to address that challenge, so that you get the relevant parking condition "now" or at your estimated time of arrival.  Within the ParkHereMate app are both a trip planning feature and an in-trip parking guidance to help with that. The planning feature is map based and offers a way to search for an address, and to understand what parking is available. The in-trip feature provides more of a graphical display and audio notifications of parking rules as you get close to your destination (being aware that we also don’t want to distract drivers!).” 

“The app keeps track of your GPS location and your direction of travel, and the idea is that you get the bit of succinct information you need so that you can otherwise concentrate on the road and identify the spot to park your car.  Of course all technology out there has its limitations, and so before marking your car parked we provide messaging to ensure people are checking the on-street signage, which may be different in some cases.

We plan to work with councils like Waverley City to maintain their parking data so that it updates as conditions change, and we also encourage people to reach out and send through a photo where in those cases where the parking info provided doesn't match what's on the street.”

The Parking Innovation Challenge was launched by the Open Data and Innovation team at Transport for NSW in March 2020.

“As a proof-of-concept project, we've designed and built ParkHereMate from the ground up as part of the Challenge - without the Challenge, it would not exist.”

“We started from first principles of designing something that would not be distracting, would provide clarity and timely guidance through a positive user-experience. We think there is still a lot of feedback to be received and growth to occur in terms of functionality and experience - for instance more trip navigation features, and off-street council parking options - but we hope that what it currently does do now adds value for both the City Council, its residents and drivers.”

The Parking Innovation Challenge followed the same process as many prior TfNSW challenges such as the Waverley Transport Innovation Challenge and the Learner Driver Log Book Innovation Challenge. After finalists are selected, their products move into the incubation phase, working alongside the Open Data and Innovation team for further development. 

“The staff in the Open Data and Innovation team have been really supportive in getting us up off the ground, connecting us with data products and local capacity, and generally making helpful suggestions along the way. It was particularly challenging having a distributed team across Australia (our team are based in Perth, Brisbane and Darwin) putting ParkHereMate together during a global pandemic, but the staff at Transport NSW did a great job of helping us and providing a flexible approach to some technical and logistical challenges.”

“The process has also had significant support from the Transport NSW team behind the incubation process, and a big part of the improvements have come from their testing of the systems.”

Piers acknowledges that the biggest challenge for Gaia Resources and ParkHereMate now and into the future comes back to our favourite four letter word: data.  

“The biggest challenge - and one that will be an ongoing challenge - will be the actual parking data that drives ParkHereMate. The way the app works is to use the parking data based on the driver's current or planned position. So what we knew early on is that the data supplied would need to be standardised and maintained to keep it up to date, and that there were several variables that would also influence the presentation of the right information, including: direction of travel, speed, GPS signal and length of parking zones.”

“What we found in testing is that some things worked really well and as expected (some better than expected!) but we are still limited by some differences between the data and what is in the real world. As a proof-of-concept though I think we've demonstrated a functioning product, and we can work with councils further to overcome the data challenges, and to make sure the latest and greatest data is used by the app into the future.”

ParkHereMate relies on open data, including parking data from local councils published on the TfNSW Open Data Hub. 

“The app uses open data provided by local councils for parking data - without open data the app would not exist.”

"We do go through a process to standardise and add value to that information (using open data products like OpenStreetMaps), and then can even provide this value-added data to 3rd parties through our Application Programming Interface (API) hosted on Amazon Web Services. We are also a big supporter of the open data concept, and so we'll be looking to add further value to this product by leveraging other data products on the Open Data Hub and other open data portals.”

“There’s no doubt about it - open data plays a key role in the ability of people, organisations, industries and nations to innovate. At Gaia Resources, a culture of innovation is deeply embedded into every aspect of the company.”

““Innovation” to us is something that is just part of the everyday work that we do; it’s about coming up with better ways to do things.  For us, it’s even part of our Quality Management System - innovation and continuous improvement for us are part of our every day approach.”

“In daily life, what it means is that our team across the board keep asking “why are we doing things this way, and how can we make it better?” - and this is why we’ve grown from pretty humble beginnings to a nationwide team of over 30 staff. Innovation for us is about being able to adapt, improve and succeed in a very unclear and changing environment.”

Piers is also looking at innovation across the entire transport industry, particularly in relation to COVID-19, the ways in which it will impact the mobility sector moving forward, and the role of innovation in addressing these impacts. 

“I’m interested in a lot of things around the future of transport generally, from the bigger things like driverless vehicles and electric vehicle charging stations, to smaller things such as the integration of other products (such as rideshare apps) and how we deal collectively with things such as special events that cover multiple council areas.”

“There are also some interesting changes to our own behaviours as a result of COVID-19 - fewer people are travelling around now - and that’s going to have an interesting follow-on impact on how we interact with our own vehicles, public transport and even if we have offices to commute to - all of which will require the parking sector to react and be innovative.I think that whatever does happen, innovation in the face of these changes is going to be the key for success.”

It has become clear that one of these keys for success in the parking industry in NSW rests on the relationship between Transport for NSW, local councils, and innovators like Gaia Resources. 

“Local councils are the true custodians of the parking guidance data, and maintain that information on an annual basis or higher frequency. The councils also manage the changing conditions and signage on the street, so it makes sense that the data in ParkHereMate is updated in sync with that.”

“In a nutshell, Transport for NSW has been our incubator, and while it’s now up to us and the local councils to work out how to deliver the best parking experience, Transport for NSW also can continue to play a role through the Open Data Hub.”

“The Open Data Hub would be the ideal publishing house for the app to automatically access standardised data products - that’s how we see this potentially working well into the future - we would have the council data heading into the Open Data Hub for us to automatically collect and then incorporate into ParkHereMate. Of course, there’s lots more to do to make this work, and we’re committed to creating collaborative, open relationships that will make it happen.”

What’s next for ParkHereMate? Piers and the team at Gaia Resources are looking at developing a larger strategy around the app, hoping to launch trails with local councils around the country in order to see whether the issues seen in this innovation challenge are the same nationwide. 

“It’s going to be a very interesting year ahead for ParkHereMate!” Piers said, and we agree. 

“What gets us out of bed is finding ways to make the world a better place, and - at least for one small aspect of our daily lives - we hope ParkHereMate will do that. What we'd really like to see is other councils coming on board with ParkHereMate, and we plan to work with them to transform their parking data assets and offer an excellent, value-added experience to their constituents and visitors.”

“Let's think about that for a moment - take 20 councils in NSW and multiply that by 500 people using the app just 10 times a year to find a parking spot. That's 100,000 times a year that people can efficiently identify a suitable parking zone and avoid driving around in circles burning more fossil fuel and getting confused and stressed by the on-street signage.”

“Those environmental and public health benefits are really worth pursuing for us, and that is what we’re hoping will help drive ParkHereMate to bigger things.”

A huge thanks to Piers Higgs for his insights on the parking industry, innovation, and the app development process. ParkHereMate is a proof of concept only and will not be made available to the public. 

You can stay up to date with what’s next for Gaia Resources on Facebook and LinkedIn, and follow both Gaia Resources and Piers Higgs on Twitter.