Bitwalking dollars: Digital currency pays people to walk
- 21 November 2015
- From the section Technology
A digital crypto-currency has launched that is generated by human movement.
Bitwalking dollars will be earned by walking, unlike other digital currencies such as Bitcoins that are "mined" by computers.
A phone application counts and verifies users' steps, with walkers earning approximately 1 BW$ for about 10,000 steps (about five miles).
Initially, users will be given the chance to spend what they earn in an online store, or trade them for cash.
The founders of the project, Nissan Bahar and Franky Imbesi have attracted more than $10m (£6.6m) of initial funding from mainly Japanese investors to help launch the currency and create the bank that verifies steps and any transfers.
Japanese electronics giant Murata is working on a wearable wristband that will provide an alternative to carrying a smartphone and show how many BW$ the wearer has earned.
Shoe manufacturers are poised to accept the currency, and a UK high street bank is in talks to partner with the project at one of the UK's biggest music festivals next year.
The founders have a track record in disruptive technology that could help developing nations as much as richer ones.
Last year they launched Keepod, a $7 USB stick that acts like a computer in Nairobi, Kenya.
The idea of Bitwalking is to take advantage of the trend for fitness trackers by offering an additional incentive to keep fit.
The global scheme plans to partner with sportswear brands, health services, health insurance firms, environmental groups, and potentially advertisers who could be offered unique insights into the audiences they are targeting.
In the future, employers may be invited to take part in a scheme that would be offered to their employees to encourage them to stay fitter, with the currency they earn converted and then paid alongside their salaries.
In developed nations the average person would earn around 15 BW$ a month, but it is hoped that in poorer countries where people have to walk further for work, school, or simply to collect water, the Bitwalking scheme could help transform lives.
Salim Adam walks around six miles (10km) a day to work as an IT teacher at his local college in Mthuntama in northern Malawi.
He has worked out that he can earn 26 BW$ a month just by having the app running on his mobile phone. His current salary is the equivalent of $26 USD.
The impact Bitwalking could make in developing countries isn't lost on the founders. It is one of the central reasons for creating the currency. In Malawi, one of the African nations to join at the launch of the project, the average rural wage is just US$1.5 (£1) a day.
Business advisor, Karen Chinkwita runs Jubilee Enterprises, giving business guidance to young people in Lilongwe. She said: "There may be a temptation for some to walk instead of work.
"But most people want to earn more money and will do both. With some education we can teach them how to use that money to create even more opportunities."
The Bitwalking manager for Malawi, Carl Meyer, has set up the first two Bitwalking hubs in Lilongwe and Mthuntama where local people will be trained how to trade the BW$ online for US$ or the local currency, Malawi Kwacha.
Eventually an automatic online exchange is planned that will match up buyers with sellers and a rough exchange rate will begin to emerge.
The Go! app for iOS and Android devices will initially be offered to a handful of countries, including the UK, Japan, Malawi, and Kenya, to give the organisers a chance to iron out any difficulties before other countries come on board.
The idea isn't completely new. Several start-ups have tried to connect keeping fit to earning rewards but most have failed to measure movement accurately enough to avoid scammers.
Bitwalking hasn't officially released the algorithm used to verify steps but says it uses the handsets' GPS position and wi-fi connections to calculate the distance travelled.
The team has created its own walking algorithm to verify users' workouts after testing Google's and finding that steps could be spoofed.
The phone reports the speed and type of movement as measured by the accelerometer.
At its launch the total amount someone can claim in one day will be capped at around 3 BW$ (roughly 30,000 steps) and running multiple accounts will be banned.
The success of the scheme is likely to depend on how much interest there is from established companies such as big sportswear brands, health insurance firms, or charity and environmental groups all of whom have an incentive to work with the fitness sector.
In Japan, it is not unusual for firms to offer employees rewards for fitness activities. Bitwalking's founders hope their project could help extend this idea to other nations.
The country's largest convenience chain store, Lawson, runs a successful scheme that pays its workers up to $50 a year to eat healthily and keep fit.
But the Lawson scheme is based on promises and trust, so unlike Bitwalking it is not verifiable. The vouchers earned cannot be traded for cash.
Despite the freedom to trade, it is likely that unless BW$ can be freely used to buy goods and services they are likely to drop in value from parity with the US$ - the point where the founders are launching it.
The online store will sell goods for the same price in BW$ as US$.
Keeping the virtual shelves of this online store fully stocked will be one of the first challenges.
The shop isn't expected to be open all the time, but plans are in place for other retailers and service providers to accept the currency in their stores too.
It is still not clear how a currency that appears to be so easy for users to produce could maintain its value, nor if the initial funding for the scheme will be sufficient to sustain it in the initial period while confidence in its value is being built up.
The Bitwalking website will invite people to apply to join the scheme so the company has some control over user numbers.
Because the new scheme necessarily tracks its users there will be data available that could be particularly valuable to advertisers - and accompanying concerns over privacy.
"That won't be for sale," says co-founder Nissan Bahar.
"We may explore offering advertisers the opportunity to focus on different groups depending on how active they are, but we won't pass on any information relating to individual's movements."
Transfers of the new currency will also be carefully monitored with transactions going through a central 'bank' which verifies each deal using the block chain method used to transfer other crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin.
Users will have access to their own wallet which stores the dollars they've earned and will be able to transfer them to others via the app.
"It's a currency that can be earned by anyone regardless of who they are and where they live," says Franky Imbesi.
"For some it will be a free cup of coffee a week perhaps offered by local businesses to encourage people to explore their local shops. For others it could be a game changer, transforming their lives by enabling them to earn and trade in the same way with the rest of the world.
"And all while encouraging us to protect the planet and stay healthy."