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How They Did It: The High And Low Tech Behind MetroChange

How three ITP students are working to turn your insufficiently-funded subway card into more meaningful change.

There you are: running late to whatever yet again with the train coming to a stop just as you hustle to the station. You swipe your MetroCard thinking, “At least I timed the train right!” when BAM–you’re crotch-checked at the turnstile with those mocking words “INSUFFICIENT FARE” adding insult to annoyance. Thrifty New Yorkers might consolidate their measly MetroCards into one more ride, but more often, those insufficient cards wind up buried forever in wallets and purses, or simply thrown away. Three NYU grad students, however, have come up with an experimental philanthropic and eco-friendly solution for MetroCards left with awkward balances.

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MetroChange reads the value remaining on your card, adds that to a central fund that goes to charity, and allows you to deposit the physical card in the kiosk for recycling. Paul May, Stepan Boltalin, and Genevieve Hoffman, students of the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at the Tisch School of the Arts, were given an assignment to use technology to improve everyday life in New York–and it didn’t take long for the group to figure out what their project would be. “We did two days of observations on the streets of New York and we noticed how many people threw their MetroCards in the trash,” says May. “We recognized that there was an issue of waste in the MetroCard system.”

And what a notable waste it actually is: The value of lost, unused, or expired MetroCards tallies up to a whopping $52 million a year. During preliminary research, May and his team conducted a survey of tourists at the Howard Beach/JFK Airport station and discovered that 20 people had a combined total of $30 left on their MetroCards. “We had found one focus of where this problem exists, which is people taking MetroCards out of the city when they go back to where they’re from,” says May. “So we started to design this system where instead of throwing it in the trash or taking it out of the city, people could put it to good use instead–that’s where the idea came from.”

The MetroChange crew then began a 12-week process of building a kiosk prototype that could actually read MetroCards–a feat that May calls a “significant challenge.” “There’s tons of information out there about how magnetic stripe readers work and there’s old information about how the MetroCard works, so we basically had to combine all of those sources of information, update it a little bit, and experiment,” he says. The team chronicled their trial and errors in their blog, but it basically boiled down to amplifying the signal from MetroCards using the magnetic tape head of a cassette player…viva la Walkman and boom box.

With their prototype complete, May says they’re focused on two things right now: “ruggedizing” their current MetroChange kiosk for production, and reaching out to the MTA and donors for sponsorship and funding. “For this to really find its feet, it would need the MTA to validate that these people don’t want their money going in the trash, so they’re going to convert that back to real money at the end of the month,” says May. “There are plenty of cities around the world where unclaimed money goes to charity, so the MTA would be in good company if they were to do this.”

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America" where he was the social media producer.

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