A technology blog for The Economist Group IT team

Sunday, January 04, 2004


We had a meeting of all our technology team recently and one item which came up was that of Smartcards. In particular, Oystercard, which is the card being used to handle payments on London Underground and London Buses. A few things came up. First that this was a similar technology to the Octopus card that has been in use in Hong King for a number of years and whose use has been extended to non-transport areas (a good summary is here). Secondly that Smartcard didn't seem particlularly appropriate for what we thought was not a very smart technology. On this latter point, Smartcard is, in fact an ISO standard that describes physical parameters and how data on the card is encrypted. Also, it is pretty smart. With the Oystercard system, journey details are relayed back to a central database - when this happens depends on the reader/writer. At fixed ticket gates (on the London Underground, for example), this happens immediately. With mobile reader/writers (on buses, for example), this happens when a data transfer occurs. Additionally, the pre-pay part of Oyster is pretty smart. If, for example, you load your Oystercard with some cash (in addition to your normal annual travelcard, say) the cost of journeys outside your normal validity will be deducted when you exit the system. And because data is stored centrally if you lose your travelcard you won't lose your money.
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