Time is of the essence for new banking system developed at IST

By Stephanie Koons
June 25, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Time banking -- a system that lets people swap time and skill instead of money -- has been gaining popularity in recent years among people who want to build supportive networks and strong, self-sustaining communities. At the Center for Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), researchers are trying to build on this momentum by refining the time-banking model and expanding the time-banking network in the community of State College.

“We have this concept called a ‘kindness currency,’” said Patrick Shih, a research associate at the Center for HCI.

The center, directed by Jack Carroll, Distinguished Professor of IST, is an interdisciplinary organizational unit for human-computer interaction research, instruction and outreach within Penn State and beyond. The Center seeks to leverage and integrate diverse HCI activities throughout the University to facilitate interdisciplinary faculty interaction relating to HCI issues, problems and opportunities.

The Center for HCI, according to its website, “uses existing partnerships with community organizations, foundations, and commercial organizations to help facilitate change in society with respect to the potential utilization of information technology.” As part of its outreach mission, the center has recently been in talks with an upstart nonprofit organization. The Happy Valley TimeBank was started by Penn State students in 2012 with three main goals: strengthen the fabric of the State College community, serve people and give them a means to serve, and establish new relationships and meet real needs of community members.

Time banking originated in the early 1980s with anti-poverty activist Edgar Cahn, as described in his book “No More Throw Away People.” Cahn developed “time dollars” as a new currency to provide a solution to cuts in government spending on social welfare. Under a time-banking system, each participant can provide community service, doing whatever he or she can do (e.g., yard work, guitar lessons, home improvements) for other members. For their services, they receive time credits that can be exchanged for other services. A community-brokering entity -- a time bank -- keeps track of time credits earned and redeemed. According to Wikipedia, 26 countries currently have active time banks. In addition, there are 250 time banks active in the United Kingdom and over 276 time banks in the U.S.

According to Shih, the time banking model took off around 2006 in the middle of a global economic recession.

“People are looking for alternative ways of doing things at a lower price,” Shih said. “It’s a paradigm shift in our workforce.”

In fall 2012, Carroll, whose research includes methods and theory in human-computer interaction, community informatics and social impacts of computing, received an award of $997,553 from the NSF to support the project, “Socio-technical Issues in Mobile Time Banking.” The project incorporates mobile computing and Web 2.0 services to carry out a design research investigation of mobile time banking. “Towards Community-Centered Support for Peer-to-Peer Service Exchange: Rethinking the Timebanking Metaphor,” which presents some of the project’s findings, won the honorable mention paper award at the 2014 ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, which was held April 26 to May 1 in Toronto. In addition to Carroll and Shih, the paper was co-authored by Victoria Bellotti of the Palo Alto Research Center in Palo Alto, Calif.; Sara Cambridge of the University of California Berkley School of Information; Lisa Handalian of the California College of the Arts in San Francisco; and Kyungsik Han, a doctoral candidate at the College of IST, Penn State.

At the start of the project, Carroll said, the Center for HCI partnered with TimeBanks USA, a nonprofit organization that formed in 1995 to promote time banking. The center recently switched to another organization, hOurworld, which offers a mobile timebanking platform. Since partnering with hOurworld, the center has implemented IOS and Android apps for its time banking system. Since the alignment with the Center for HCI, Shih said, the hOurworld system has expanded from 10,000 to 20,000 members in nine months. The proposed partnership between the Center for HCI and the Happy Valley TimeBank, Carroll said, is contingent upon the latter agreeing to adopt the hOurworld platform.

“We would get direct partners in the community,” Carroll said.

In the paper that was presented at the CHI Conference, Carroll, Shih and their co-authors discuss the problems with the banking metaphor that their study exposed, as well as how those problems can be tackled with user experience design for systems supporting time banking.

“Our design ideas emphasize the personal and social benefits of participation, and avoid such unappealing concepts as debt and neediness that the time banking metaphor falls afoul of,” the researchers wrote.

A typical time bank hosts a basic website, usually implemented on one of a few special purpose time banking or alternative currency exchange software platforms. Websites typically display lists of service offers and requests from time bank members (e.g. electrical work, plumbing, babysitting). In contrast to bartering, where goods and services are mutually exchanged without use of a currency, time banks employ a “pay-it-forward” model.  For an hour of service such as dog-walking or house-painting, one time dollar is debited from the recipient and awarded to the provider. The provider then uses the dollar to pay for service from another, and the recipient can provide a service to anyone else to earn back the debit.

“It’s more like a mutual recognition of value,” Carroll said.

One problem that the researchers discovered with the pay-it-forward system, he said, is that users sometimes “hoard” services without making their own contributions to the time bank.

“This does not really support the concept of an exchange system,” Carroll said. “Should there be a different way of thinking about this institution than as a bank?”

Between November 2012 and March 2013, the researchers conducted 50 semi-structured interviews with time bank coordinators, users, and other community members to obtain information about the experience of time banking. They also tried out time-banking systems used by various time-bank communities.

One of the problems with time banking that the researchers discovered was that some people prefer not to ask for help, which may stem in part from a natural human aversion toward receiving favors. Elderly people in particular, Shih said, may have issues regarding their ability to “pay back” services.

“The problem with the time bank metaphor in this regard is that, in a conventional banking system, people have no reserve about ‘buying’ services,” the researchers wrote. “So the metaphor can be seen as failing if people feel uncomfortable about asking for help, as if they are still obligated somehow, in spite of ‘paying’ with their hours.”

“Most people are not comfortable going into ‘debt’ in a time bank system,” Shih said.

Moving forward, Shih said, the researchers will apply what they have learned about the time banking system to “propose alternative types of technology platforms that could better facilitate its mission.” They are currently studying other types of peer-to-peer systems, particularly commercial ones that have more financial resources than nonprofits, to discover the most effective design tactics for encouraging user participation. Their vision is to add “smart” and context-aware capabilities to enable the system to provide recommendations based on factors such as member location, schedule and current activity.

“Ultimately, we want to evolve this into a basis for a new way for a community to function more efficiently, sustainably and harmoniously,” the researchers wrote.

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Last Updated June 26, 2014