Penn State researcher creates app to make time banking mobile

Members of time banking communities can record hours, post jobs and hire other members from their smartphones. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- For Katherine Watt, a cookie isn’t just a cookie. Sometimes — with the help of a system called time banking — it can be turned into a wool cape.

Time banking is the exchange of services based on the number of hours it takes to complete them. Members of a time bank earn hours by performing services, bank those hours and then redeem them for a service from another member. Someone may trade an hour of raking leaves for an hour of roof patching, for example.

Watt, a member of the local Happy Valley Timebank, earned hours baking and delivering homemade cookies before redeeming them for sewing lessons.

Until recently, time banking had been mostly managed with desktop transaction systems. But in an ever-more-mobile society, Jack Carroll — a distinguished professor in the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) — got the idea to create an app in which members of time banking communities could record their hours, post jobs and hire other members from their smartphones.

“We’re a very mobile society, and a time banking app would make recording hours or looking for a service much more convenient,” said Carroll. “I was also interested in researching time banking practices, like why some people time bank and others don’t, and privacy issues that arise when using mobile apps.”

Carroll received an National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded grant to complete the app — called hOurworld — in collaboration with the time bank network of the same name for both Android and iOS smartphones.

Those who have downloaded hOurworld can join Happy Valley Timebank from their smartphones. They can open the app and click “Join hOurworld,” where they can choose from nearby time banks. Or, they can sign up using Happy Valley Timebank’s website and then log in using the app.

The app does this with the help of context awareness, which Carroll says is a hot topic in the human-computer interaction field and is the ability of mobile devices to use interaction history and current location to suggest nearby opportunities to users. Penn State, in collaboration with Palo Alto Research Center and Carnegie-Mellon University, recently received a second NSF grant to investigate the use of content awareness in the app.

But while context awareness allows apps to customize a user’s experience, it also uses personal information — like location and interaction history — to do so.

“This has been one of the challenges of the project and also a topic of interest in my time bank research,” said Carroll. “I want to explore how we can use context awareness to enhance the app while also maintaining the privacy of the users.”

In addition to studying the balance between context awareness and privacy, Carroll is also interested in learning more about why some people are drawn to using time banks and others are not.

“We know, for example, that the average U.S. time bank user is a middle-aged, lower-income, highly educated Caucasian female,” said Carroll. “I’m interested in exploring why that might be as well as how and why people use time banks the way they do.”

Anne Burgevin, a coordinator for Happy Valley Timebank, has seen how different people use time banks in different ways. Burgevin said that while the time bank’s members often use the system for very practical tasks — like gathering firewood — some find playful and whimsical ways to earn and spend their hours (like baking and delivering cookies).

Originally from upstate New York, where she participated in the very active Ithaca Hours time bank, Burgevin came to State College three years ago and became a member of Happy Valley Timebank. She now advocates for the time bank, extolling the virtues and benefits of the system and encouraging people to sign up.

“Time banking is valuable because it helps build a sense of community without the exchange of money,” said Burgevin. “It really brings out everyone’s personal talents — everyone has something to offer — and the new app forms a great link between the University and the local time banking community.”

And that community spans the globe. Ting Chen, who is visiting State College from China while collaborating on a research project with a Penn State professor, used a similar trading of time in his home country. Now, he’s using Happy Valley Timebank. He and his daughter, Kangqi Chen — whom he calls Beanie — have used the time bank to work with Burgevin to learn new skills. Burgevin worked with Beanie on her poetry, while Chen taught Burgevin about Taoism, ancient exercises that Chen says are beneficial to one’s health.

“My daughter and I have really enjoyed learning from Anne through the time bank, and I’ve enjoyed teaching her, as well,” said Chen. “Beanie has learned a lot about composition and choosing proper words in her poetry. She’s also learned, of course, that helping each other is a beautiful thing.”

Although Chen and his daughter are only in State College for a year, that doesn’t mean their experience with time banking has to end. There are hOurworld time banks around the globe.

And all of them can be found in the palm of your hand with the help of Carroll’s app.

To learn more about State’s College’s time bank, visit

For more IT stories at Penn State, visit

Last Updated May 13, 2015