UChicago Astrophysicist, Students Create Free Curbside Parking App

The app uses GPS tracking and phones’ motion to find available parking spots.

By Hillel Steinmetz

Two University of Chicago students and an astrophysicist have created an app that helps users find free curbside parking spots.

ParkZen was released as a free app on Apple App Store on March 17 and is a finalist in the New Venture Challenge at the Booth School of Business.

ParkZen was founded by post-doctoral fellow at the Fermi Institute Manos Chatzopoulos, fourth-year computer science major Zachary Jenkins, and first-year Booth MBA student Russell Corey.

The app uses motion sensors in a user’s phone, GPS tracking, and data from the City of Chicago Data Portal. It detects a phone’s motion and uses GPS tracking to determine whether a car leaves a curbside parking spot. The app uses the data of the location of bus stops in Chicago from the city’s Data Portal, predetermined speeds, and the distance a car travels away from a street to rule out activities such as walking, getting on a bus, or parking in a lot.

ParkZen uses data from the city of Chicago Data Portal in order to notify users of scheduled street cleaning, snow clearing, and overnight parking bans so that users can avoid receiving a fine for leaving their cars parked at those times.

Chatzopoulos said he was motivated to create the app after he moved to Hyde Park in 2013, and struggled to find curbside parking spots.

“It would take me at least 15 to 20 minutes, sometimes 30 minutes—circling around the block, blind-searching for a free spot,” Chatzopoulos said. “The truth of the matter is parking in Hyde Park, as well as many other areas in Chicago, is highly congested.”

Chatzopoulos decided to use the programming skills he developed as an astrophysicist to develop the algorithm that ParkZen uses to find free curbside parking. According to Chatzopoulos, the methods of mathematical and statistical analysis used in astronomy helped him develop the app. He began writing the algorithm in his spare time in 2014.

“My background is astrophysics, so I could write the code for the app and do the data analysis of the algorithm based on a similar kind of science that we use to study black holes and supernovae,” Chatzopoulos said.

In 2015, the app was a Phase 2 semifinalist in the University’s App Challenge. In the spring of 2015, ParkZen was accepted to a program designed to teach management and entrepreneurship called the Innovation Corps (I-Corps), which is run by the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Booth. ParkZen is also a finalist in the New Venture Challenge, a highly-acclaimed accelerator program run by the Polsky Center.

Chatzopoulos said that he is not concerned with revenue at the moment, but rather gaining users, and has recently launched a Facebook ad campaign.

Since ParkZen is so data driven, it becomes more effective as its user base grows. So far, ParkZen has 80 users in Hyde Park.

Other planned developments include bringing the app to Android and a feature that enables high location accuracy when users approach their car.