NYC BigApps Hackathon Gives Young Whizzes a Jumpstart at Entrepreneurship

Eric Rafaloff, creator of the Can I Park Here app, may have been destined to join New York’s startup community. After he got his first computer when he was eight years old, he wanted to learn how software worked at deeper levels. Now a young man of 19, Rafaloff took first place at last weekend’s NYC BigApps Hackathon, after working alone to create an app that tells users if they are legally parked on New York’s sometimes confusing streets. Rafaloff is now shooting to win the NYC BigApps 3.0 competition currently underway—and the $10,000 prize.

Can I Park Here combines data from the New York City Department of Transportation with Rafaloff’s software to alert users of the current parking rules in their vicinity. “It lets people avoid parking tickets,” he says. “It solves a point of pain for a lot of people.”

Rafaloff and 74 other hackers were given one day at the hackathon, held at software development consulting firm Pivotal Labs, to create original apps that use data provided by the city administration. Ten apps were submitted for judging by the end of the weekend. Rafaloff took home the grand prize: a $1,000 Amazon gift card.

The hackathon is a stepping stone to the annual NYC BigApps competition hosted by ChallengePost in conjunction with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office. The objective in the overall contest is also to create an app that enhances life in New York by using data supplied by the city’s administration. Competitors can also use APIs from participating local technology companies such as bitly, GetGlue, Foursquare, and Tumblr to build their apps. The deadline for submissions is January 25 and Rafaloff says he is improving Can I Park Here to vie for the grand prize, which includes a chance to demo at an upcoming gathering of the city’s massive NY Tech Meetup.

Win or lose, Rafaloff says he will explore turning his app into a business venture after the BigApps competition ends. He is considering offering Can I Park Here for purchase, possibly for $1.99 or $2.99, or as a free app that includes advertising and local deals from nearby merchants. “This way I could work with other businesses who want to advertise with me,” he says. Rafaloff says he currently does not see a need for funding though he will assess his prospects after the BigApps competition.

Rafaloff took a leave of absence early this month from his studies in entrepreneurship at Baruch College to dive into the New York technology scene. “I am very passionate about technology and what I am learning outside of college,” he says. “The traditional route is not for me at the moment.” He works as a software engineer for Designer Pages, a network for architects and designers to buy products such as ceiling fans, appliances, and flooring.

Rafaloff says in creating Can I Park here, he treated the parking conundrum as a logic equation that software could interpret and solve. His app pinpoints users’ locations and matches that to information about the nearby parking signs. He broke down the descriptions of the signs into pieces of data and identified patterns based on the way the parking rules were written. Can I Park Here tells users about the conditional exceptions such as no parking on Tuesdays and Fridays.

The app is not yet foolproof, however. Rafaloff is refining the software to improve its ability to recognize street signs. “That is what I am going to be working on for the next few months,” he says. Rafaloff says when he started work on Can I Park Here he only had access to a portion of the New York City DOT’s data, limiting the streets where the app can function. “I reached out to them and they said I can expect to see more data that I could work with in the next few weeks,” he says.

Rafaloff designed Can I Park Here with the Titanium development platform, which lets him to write the app to function on iPhone and Android smartphones. He continues to work alone on the software to get it ready for the main BigApps competition, though he remains open to bringing others onboard. “The only things that still need to be developed are more pieces of code that interpret the signs,” he says.

Rafaloff says the evolution of the New York technology scene has encouraged him to explore local opportunities rather take his talent to other tech hubs such as Silicon Valley. “I don’t see a compelling reason to go,” he says, “This is the community I want to be involved in. New York City is definitely growing in terms of our startup scene.”

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