Zander Whitehurst didn’t have a lot of money. The 22-year-old Oxford University graduate flew from London to New York, at which point he planned to obtain his masters degree from New York University’s prestigious Interactive Telecommunications Program. But soon after landing, Whitehurst realized that what little funds he did have had taken a small, frustrating hit. Now that he was in New York, the £5.60 stuck on his London transit pass–called an Oyster Card–had become permanently useless.
It’s a common story at any major transportation hub. People leaving the country or a city will hand off transit passes with an odd amount of change to strangers or forget about them. Transit authorities know this; they also know that by asking for an odd amount of money on cards, they’ll reap whatever spare change is left after the rides. Whitehurst had another idea: What if that spare change went to charity instead?
Now, Whitehurst has created a system in which subway riders can simply swipe their cards against a special RFID-reading panel to donate extra change. Tapping the Oyster Card against a “Common Pence” panel relieves it of 50 pence, while continuing to press the card against the panel drains the Oyster Card fully.
Whitehurst also developed a hand-held version of the device for street fundraising. “Face to face, people try to get you to send an email just to donate £3, and it’s such a hassle for most people,” he says. “The other free-hanging panels can exist almost anywhere in the urban environment. I’m trying to encourage local charities to be displayed on the panels so people can give back and invest in their own communities.”
Not all transit cards have RFID strips. New York City MetroCards, for example, have magnetic readers (though RFID technology will arrive soon). That’s why Whitehurst’s focusing on the Oyster Card, but he also wants to expand the idea to include bus passes and contactless credit cards. Before Whitehurst can, Transport for London (TfL), London’s transit authority, would need to grant permission for the technology to work. Whitehurst says he’s in talks with the TfL, and so far the agency’s been keen to pursue the idea.
One day, he envisions a world in which anyone could be walking down the street in, say, Paris, and swipe a smartphone app, credit card, or MetroCard against a Common Pence panel. “That’s where the idea evolves,” Whitehurst says. “It’s trying to innovate donation to the point where we’re not using physical spare change.”