BIXI: Another example of IT changing the world for the better

When you work daily on the small parts that make up a system, it's easy to lose track of the big picture. Marc Schiller talks about a new initiative that is catching on that wouldn't be possible without IT.

Recently, I wrote about the mission-critical nature of IT in the context of my daughter's cardiac surgery at Montefiore Children's Hospital. In addition to the much-appreciated well wishes, I received a great deal of comments and messages that reflected a shared belief that the work we do as IT professionals is important on multiple levels, and it's nice to be reminded of that from time to time.

Still, a few skeptics stepped forward with responses that sounded something like "IT is only mission-critical by exception, this is a rare example" and "IT is not so magical, it's much more mechanical, practical, and behind-the-curtain in nature."

I understand why some of you feel that way. The daily turns of the work we do -- logical, finely detailed, and action-reaction in nature­ -- make it all too easy to lose sight of the big picture. In fact, the longer we're in the business, the less idealistic we tend to become.

Nothing good comes from being skeptical about the importance of what you do. And unfortunately, I encounter this a fair bit. More importantly, I am convinced that the structural inability of many IT professionals to fully appreciate the value and importance of their work is a major reason why they're underappreciated by their employers, not vice-versa.

And so, it's for exactly that reason­ --  to counter the prevailing Eyore-like cynicism -- that I'm back with another example of how IT is changing the world for the better. And it's my hope and intention to further open your eyes to the power and importance of IT all around us.


I'm writing to you today from Montreal where I've encountered BIXI, an impressive public bicycle-access service. BIXI is a completely personnel-free system; it provides a healthy, low-cost means of urban transportation, accessible to everyone, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Montrealers use BIXI to rent bikes from over 60 locations across the city, checking bikes in and out where and when they please for maximum convenience.

Rentals are processed from a small kiosk adjacent to a bank of automated bike racks. BIXI users swipe their membership cards if enrolled or credit cards for one-time use. After a brief authentication, the system issues a unique code that the rider punches into the keypad of the bay housing the bikes of their choice.  The rack clicks open, and the user is pedaling away in a matter of seconds. The result is a fast, economical, environmentally friendly, and healthy alternative means of transportation for city residents and commuters.

BIXI handles hassle-free bike exchanges and has a "Report a Problem" feature that can be used if the bicycle isn't up to snuff. BIXI has become so popular that stations in London have already opened up, and trial runs of the system are being conducted in cities in California, Utah, and Colorado.

The tech that makes BIXI possible

What makes BIXI feasible (and so elegant) is the IT that supports it. That's the essential point you should be homing in on -- that a system like BIXI could never work without technology backing it up.

It's the IT behind BIXI that:

  • Authenticates membership cards for BIXI service subscribers or processes secure credit card transactions for one-time users.
  • Assigns and distributes individual user codes so that riders can check out the bikes of their choice and return it to any of the 60 locations.
  • Controls automatic locking and unlocking racks so that bikes can be checked out easily and stored securely without the need for attendants.
  • Enables riders to swap out bicycles and report issues and service needs for specific units.
  • Automatically logs and transmits check-in and check-out times, ensuring accurate billing without putting any record-keeping burden on the users
  • Provides back-end analytics so that the usage activity for the bicycles can be used for staging and planning purposes.

In my humble opinion, what we have here is a great example of technology making the world a better place.  Sorry to be so idealistic but think about it: Without the IT pulling all this together, BIXI would not exist.

Now, you may be thinking "big deal, there's nothing earth-shattering about the technology in use here." I'll agree that no single part of the BIXI system is overwhelming in its complexity or brilliance; that's not the point I'm trying to make.

Although I can't speak to the inner-workings of the system intimately, I doubt the technologies used (aside from perhaps the cool automated bike racks) were built from scratch to make the BIXI system possible. Rather, what's important is that while no single component of the BIXI system is particularly cutting-edge, it's the fact that a number of technologies and systems have been woven together to bring BIXI to life and to keep it humming. A set of IT systems (and the people who keep it working) has made possible an incredible social and ecological advancement.

As a result of BIXI, the residents of Montreal can live healthier lives by getting more exercise. They have access to a transportation option that helps preserve the environment, reduces air pollution, lowers the amount of money spent on gas, and reduces our dependence on oil. And, best of all, BIXI is a technology in action that makes people feel better about themselves and how they live. From this point of view, you can really see how IT was put to work for the greater good. It's something that all IT leaders should be proud of.

Why the BIXI story is so important

BIXI is an empowering demonstration of technology at work, and one that is having an impact that matters. BIXI should be a source of pride for you as an IT professional. It should remind you of the very important role IT plays in making the world a better place. It should also remind you that being a "geek" can be pretty cool.

You should become familiar with stories of systems like BIXI. Share them with your colleagues; help spread the word about the triumphs of your industry. It will help to create a greater consciousness of our roles as IT professionals and an expanded understanding of the possibilities that IT presents, first and foremost for ourselves but also for our customers.