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3 Canton friends created an app to help neighbors avoid having their car towed

Three friends in Canton have created an app to help neighbors look out for each other and warn when a car is about to get ticketed or towed. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

Scrolling through the Canton Neighbors Facebook page this spring, 25-year-old Pearce Farnum began to notice a trend.

One user posted that someone had left car lights on. Another user posted about a tow truck about to ruin someone's day.

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Farnum had an idea, and he enlisted his friends for help.

Farnum contacted entrepreneur Michael Cianos and youth counselor Nick Stengel in April. All had been friends since high school. They reached out to a developer in Tampa, Fla., and began working on YourCar — a mobile messaging app that helps neighbors look out for each other when their cars are in trouble.

The design is simple. Users enter their car's license plate number and state. Then, if a user accidentally leaves his or her lights on, for example, another user can send a message and help save a car battery.

The message would show up as a notification on the owner's cellphone.

"We wanted it not to feel like a social app," Cianos said. "It's really just a neighborly tool."

The friends came up with the name during an Orioles game. Sitting together and looking at the Canton Neighbors Facebook posts, they noticed most had the phrase "your car."

"I threw the idea out there, and everybody took to it," Cianos said.

With a focus on being neighborly, Cianos said, his team will work to reduce those users who might use the app only to send spiteful messages about parking jobs.

"We plan to be very strict on users reported, unlike other apps reluctant to fully delete users," Cianos said.

Michael Trusov, associate professor of marketing at the University of Maryland, has experience in both software development and internet applications. He suggested two ways app developers can discourage negative users.

One is automated text monitoring for language that violates a user agreement. Another is a system where other users vote on feedback received from peers.

"Success on the app would be how you reach out to each other," Trusov said.

The team launched YourCar on Saturday. The app is free for anyone to use, but the first version will be available only on iOS-compatible devices, such as iPhones and iPads.

As for revenue, the three friends are exploring advertising within the app.

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"Our focus is getting as many users as possible," Stengel said. "We really want to make a positive impact in the community."

Siddharth Kaza, associate professor in computer and information sciences at Towson University, described three common ways apps can turn a good idea into profits.

One is developing a user base so large that a larger company offers to buy. Another is developing a relationship in which the app promotes a local business for a fee. The third is selling advertising.

"Ads work well with people who build apps on the side," Kaza said.

YourCar is the latest app out of Baltimore aimed at improving quality of life. OrderUp, launched in 2009, enables users to order food delivery from local restaurants. Parking Panda, launched in 2011, now lists more than 2 million parking spaces that people can reserve online.

With meetup groups such as Baltimore Mobile and schools with technology programs, Kaza said, Baltimore provides a good environment for developers to connect.

"I like that we are smaller, and you get to talk to people," Kaza said. "At D.C. meetups, there might be 200 people in a room. Here it's 40 people in a room."

Cianos has experience in startups and mobile apps, being involved in both the laundry finder B' More Clean and event locater Happinin. Farnum said he went to Cianos first to see what he thought about YourCar.

"I initially didn't take to it," Cianos said. "But I talked to other neighbors about it, and they really liked the idea."

YourCar was designed to allow users to remain anonymous. No names or phone numbers are visible to other users.

Still, Cianos recommended exercising caution when someone gets a message about their car late at night.

"Ask for someone to send a picture so you can confirm what they say is true," Cianos said. "Or ask a friend to go with you."

For Stengel, the YourCar app hits close to home.

"I had my own car broken into," he said. "It would've been nice to get some warning about it."

Cianos said the team will rely on user experience to help make improvements for the next version of the app, to be released via the Google Play store for Android users.

In the meantime, the team is spreading the word by giving away "Find me on YourCar" stickers online and sharing the news on the Canton Facebook page.

"This app is just a cool and innovative way of helping people out," Stengel said.

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