Gathan Beaga

snapper: an introduction

SnapperI’ve been interested in various forms of electronic cash for a long time now: joining the DigiCash trial in 1995; then waiting excitedly, but ultimately uselessly, for Mondex and VisaCash around the turn of the millennium; signing up for PayPal as soon as it went international in 2001… and then nothing. Nothing.

I suppose it’s unlikely now, post September 11, that anyone’s ever going to implement the sort of anonymous electronic cash that could replace the present functions of notes and coins. But the failure to come up with anything remotely approaching it has been disappointing to my inner geek.

Here in Wellington though, the first halting steps into the future are occurring. And they’re spearheaded by a bus company. Yeah, you heard right. Not a bank (they’ve been burned several times), nor starry-eyed crypto-geeks with a private line to a VC (the VCs have done their dough already on that) but a bus company.

It turns out that ticketing is a big expense in transportation (no surprise, really); the solution is smart cards of one sort or another; but these too are expensive, so they need to be expanded in function to become more cash-like in usage in order to become economical, especially in small places like New Zealand. This is what Infratil are up to with their Snapper card. It’s been done before elsewhere (London’s Oyster and Hong Kong’s Octopus are often quoted), but here there seems to be quite a strong emphasis on the wider uses of the system outside transportation. This I like.

To get it going Infratil imported Charles Monheim from Oyster to head up the Snapper project. Monheim, an American who used to run the NYCTA’s buses before heading up Oyster, seems the sort that would only come on board if Infratil had big plans and the salaries to match, which counts as a good omen for Snapper I think. And ambitions for Snapper are not small: Infratil have been quoted as hoping “to turn Snapper into a nationwide payment system for public transport and small purchases.”

So, it’s probably going to be a good thing to understand both the technologies driving Snapper, and the kinds of social and financial impacts that might arise from ubiquitous use, should Infratil be successful. I hope to write some more about all this later.