Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The Question about transparency in a Social Experiment.

I'm currently taking part in a social experiment that is based on the "Take a penny, Leave a Penny" social idea that is apparently from what I hear is quite wide spread in America. This is of course the social experiment devised by Jonathan Spark. His "Take a Coffee, Leave a Coffee" version is based around the fact that you can get a card in Starbucks USA that has a bar code that represents the long digit code that we have on our UK cards so basically Jonathan has taken a screen grab of his cards barcode and uploaded it to the web. With the express permission to allow everyone to have a coffee on someone else. Jonathan also wrote a bot that will scrape the Balance from the card at regular intervals and post the information to a Twitter account @jonathanscard which as of writing this has just over five thousand followers.

The Balance seems to fluctuate between zero and a couple of hundred dollars but with so many following the experiment its not hard to see why this happens. Yesterday I went into my local to work Starbucks and got them to type in the long digit number and got my self a "Tall drip coffee" Approx £1.50 in value. Now I went and tweeted that it worked in the UK and I noticed that the Tweets before and after my purchase dropped from £54.90 to zero balance. A lot of people on hacker news have been speculating that the card had been hacked because they were seeing the balance jump by as much as a $100 at a time. Speculation ran from people buying gift cards to people waiting for the balance to go up and then buying coffee machines.

I disagree I think that there is just that many people buying coffee on the card that the balance doesn't have the chance to stay high for any period of time. Jonathans bot is his attempt at transparency showing the public that there is a large amount of money on the card so go and get a free coffee. That's where I think this experiment has gone wrong. I think that the experiment should have hidden the value of the card as the experiment is now "Grab a free coffee" with some nice people putting cash on the card for others.

If the ethos of the experiment is "Take a penny, Leave a Penny" basically you shouldn't be checking the balance before you go for a coffee. You go to the till and say I'll have a coffee on this card. Then if the card is empty you put $10 on it. Of course as the number of people taking part increase the issue might happen that you put $10 dollars on it and it empties between the money going on and the cashier charging the card.

But still a lovely heart warming idea and I hope it works out.