Profile: 2014 Powerful Answers Award Transportation Winner HopOn

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Anyone who rides city buses knows the frustration of waiting in line to board while the passengers in front of you fumble for exact change or a magnetic-strip card to pay their fare. But what if riders could pay simply by boarding the bus, leaving their smartphones in their pockets or purses? A new app called HopOn, which recently won a 2014 Powerful Answers Award in the Transportation category, is already making this futuristic scenario possible in Israel.

HopOn was created in 2012 by Ofer Sinai and David Mezuman, accountants from Tel Aviv who often rode the bus to work together. They frequently noticed the annoyance of waiting for passengers to gather their exact change together, and the time spent waiting for passengers to board one-by-one at each stop. "One day, both of us were at the station," says Sinai, "And we were checking our wallets and found out that we had no cash. So we had to go to the bank and take out cash. It took us thirty minutes — we missed the bus."

After that incident, Sinai and Mezuman looked into mobile payments for public transportation, to see if the technology was coming soon, and were surprised to find it wasn't. Next, they started thinking from the point of view of the transit system.

"We found out [waiting for passengers to pay] takes a lot of time," says Sinai. "It can take up to four minutes per station to pick up ten or fifteen passengers," simply because riders had to pay on a one-by-one basis, which added up to many extra hours of idling and contributed to traffic and pollution across the system. "We found [payment] is one of the most crucial things that makes the system slower than it can be."

So the two friends set out to create a mobile payment system for public transit.

"We wanted to use mobile for simultaneous payment and ticketing, instead of the one-by-one payment process," Sinai explains. The two founders looked into several technologies, such as iBeacon and Bluetooth, before realizing they needed a unique technology that would work on every device, whether Bluetooth was enabled or not, and without hogging battery power. They settled on sound wave technology that uses the phone's microphone to communicate a sound, which is recognized by a beacon at the point of payment.

"Every telephone, it doesn't matter what kind, has a microphone," Sinai points out. The system then generates an electronic receipt that the passenger can show to inspectors later if necessary.

Once Sinai and Mezuman had the HopOn system ready, it was time to get clients — in this case, the transit authorities in Israel. "We showed them how the process could be much faster and smoother," says Sinai. "And they walked hand in hand with us to bring the technology to market."

Passengers were also quick to adopt the technology in Israel when they realized how automatic the process was — after initially downloading the app and inputting their credit card information, riders simply open the app on their phones at the station and board the bus, without having to do anything — no swiping, no holding the phone up to a sensor. "They are amazed," Sinai says. "It's like magic."

After finding out about and entering Verizon's Powerful Answers Award competition "at the very last minute," Sinai and Mezuman were both at a wedding when Sinai checked his email on his phone and found out HopOn was a winner.

"I was screaming," Sinai laughs. "When I showed the email to David, he started screaming too."

The HopOn team, which now has eight members, plans to use the $250,000 Powerful Answers Award prize and the support of Verizon help to develop partnerships with transit systems in other countries, especially the U.S.

After great success in Israel, Sinai is optimistic about HopOn's chances of adoption in other countries. "When they see how much time and money they can save, [transit authorities] are pushing this technology forward because it will bring so much value to the system."

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