The MTA's iconic blue-and-gold MetroCard, wielded daily by 8.5 million  New York City public transit riders, is getting a new look, brought to you by retail stores around the city who are turning your transit card into a coupon.
Starting this week, NYC riders will start seeing branded cards  featuring coupons or promotions from retail stores.
Gap, for example, is using the MetroCard's real estate to promote its newly remodeled flagship retail store in Chelsea. It's also offering MTA riders 20% off through November 18 when they present their Gap-branded MetroCards at any retail location. And an ad from Health Plus stamps MetroCards with a toll-free number riders can call to inquire about New York State-sponsored free or low-cost health insurance.
The current initiative opens up a new revenue stream for the MTA to help what MTA Chairman and CEO Joseph J. Lhota describes as its "fragile finances." The MTA will work with retail partners to help them target up to 10 stations around the boroughs, taking certain demographic considerations into account, such as which stations have the highest ridership, or which boroughs have higher concentrations of student or senior pass purchases. These parameters can help retailers better determine how to distribute their cards to the people most likely to make use of them. For example, the Gap cards make up 10% of cards distributed only at high-ridership stations near its 34th Street store. The Health Plus cards are mostly available at stations in Brooklyn, Flushing, Queens, and the Bronx.
In July, Fast Company contributor Emily Badger  wrote a story for the Atlantic Cities  that posed the question of how the public could make use of data as cities continue to make more of it available. But it's interesting to think about what city organizations themselves could potentially do with their own data, once they start making sense of it.
Though it's not in place now, it's not hard to imagine that, in the future, the MTA could develop a more mature version of its branded card initiative that would parse ridership information for even more specific details about its riders that could help its advertiser partners create more targeted campaigns. Retail brands would be able to target customers if not by their real identities, then at least by where they ride the most, and how often; whether they're buying student or senior passes; what languages are popular in the neighborhoods the frequent; and all kinds of other data points the transit system can potentially tease out from the 1.6 billion turnstile swipes it collects in a year.
Useful? Potentially. Creepy? Maybe. Though it's nearly guaranteed the MTA would never be able to use your personal identification information, they could probably fairly easily amass a collection of information about you, and riders with habits similar to you, to determine how its advertising partners can best target you.
The MTA says more branded cards are coming in December and January, and the MTA's senior communications director, Paul J. Fleuranges, says the phones "have been ringing nonstop with inquiries."
[Image: Flickr user Mr. T in DC ]