Contactless IDs: Why Cant We Tap That?

Let me construct a few scenarios that I’m sure we’re all too familiar with in our daily lives. 1) You’ve got fifteen minutes to eat. There’s a mentor session soon, and you’re trying to finish the reading by perching your book precariously on top of the green take-out container. How the heck are you going to open the door to your dorm without dropping your dinner on the ground? 2) You’re parched. A wild vending machine appears in your path, glimmering like an oasis in the desert. You swipe your card, already tasting the sweet syrup of a Coke, only to be assaulted by the dulcet tones of the worn-out reader signaling an error. 3) You missed breakfast and lunch, and are going to have to miss dinner. The Coop Fountain is looking inviting, but the line is stuck because the cashier is trying desperately to read the last few electrons of magnetic charge off the stripe of someone’s ID card which has clearly seen the inside of a dryer too many times.

What would fix all of these scenes almost instantaneously? A contactless ID card. A quick tap would maintain your book’s balance, get you your Coke, and allow everyone to eat at the Coop Fountain in time to get to the next event. Moreover—wouldn’t you know it—Pomona College, Scripps College, Harvey Mudd College and the Claremont University Consortium staff all have these sparkly, new, incredibly efficient IDs.

Why then, are we still using our ID’s magnetic strip to swipe our way into all buildings except ITS, and on every vending machine and point-of-sale terminal except for those in the library?

I really want to know the answer to that question. I can think of a few excuses, but none of them makes the least bit of sense. “The technology is too new and untested” is definitely out. FeliCa contactless ID cards were conceived by Japan Railways East in 1987, and have seen extremely successful commercial use in both Japan and Hong Kong since 1997. According to one statistic, 30 million FeliCa train passes are currently in daily use in Japan, and 95 percent of the eight million residents of Hong Kong use the FeliCa-based Octopus card on a daily basis to board buses, buy items and even enter their homes and workplaces. Applying this battle-hardened system with nearly two decades of real-world use to the small environment of the Claremont Colleges is clearly possible and even practical.

“Not all of the colleges use contactless ID cards” is another non-excuse. Every contactless reader supplied by Blackboard Inc., the vendor that handles all ID card transactions for the Claremont Colleges, is fully backward-compatible with the older mag-stripe cards. Students from colleges like Claremont McKenna College and Pitzer College that have yet to adopt the new cards don’t need to change their usage patterns at all—they can still swipe into any dining hall or off-campus building they want, even if that building or venue is contactless-equipped. Same for Pomona, Scripps and HMC students who want to access Pitzer or CMC buildings: our cards are dual-mode hybrids, so systems requiring magnetic stripes are still entirely usable.

“There hasn’t been enough time to change out all the card readers on campus” is the last excuse I can think of, but this one might be the weakest of them all. Except for a proof of concept at the J.C. Cowart Information Technology Building, a whopping zero magnetic stripe readers have been replaced with contactless counterparts anywhere on the combined campuses of Pomona, Scripps and HMC. I exclude dining halls, because they simply added a contactless reader on top of the existing system.

In an interview with Frank Bedoya, Pomona’s Senior Associate Dean and Director of Housing and Operations, I learned that the contactless ID system was not chiefly implemented for the convenience of the students, but rather the health of dining hall staff, who complained of repetitive stress injuries arising from swiping so many ID cards at meal times. However, the benefits of the contactless card applications outside the dining halls are apparently known to the college, but the high price of installing readers ($1,100 for readers alone, without counting labor) appears to have stalled installation efforts. The best time frame I could get is that contactless readers will be installed either when money becomes available or when renovations to buildings occur, and that Walker Hall is scheduled to get them within the next two weeks.

That’s fine, but here’s my question: Why make the initial investment in distributing the cards at all if we knew the implementation would be slow and hampered by financial burden? If it was the health of dining hall workers the school was worried about, we could have simply put a card reader on the counter and let the students swipe themselves in without getting completely new cards. It’s no less secure than letting students tap themselves in, as long as a human is always present at the counter. Plus, it would have avoided the foreseeable side effect of disappointing students like me when the rollout turned out to be slow and ineffective. So let’s do better, Pomona, Scripps and HMC. Let’s do better both at managing expectations and using the new technology in which you’ve invested. After all, these daring minds can’t afford to be slowed down in any way—least of all by an outdated magnetic stripe!

Facebook Comments

Leave a Reply