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Bryan Hance knew his problem, and a few ways to solve it, but whenever he tried to track down his bike after it was stolen, something that happened far too frequently, he ran into roadblocks. Sure, there were registries he could try to access—the bike shop he bought it from, local police, college campus police—but none of them talked to each other, they didn’t share information, and what little they had was on paper and inaccessible to everyday people. It was a mess.
Where other people saw a material problem, Hance saw a data solution. This was in the early days of the internet boom, and Hance was in computer science. “Anybody who works in databases could see that we could solve that problem,” he says. “I’d make one big open place for people to report the stuff for themselves.” So, Bryan started working, and created his first bike site, Stolen Bike Registry, unsure if it would make any dent in what was a well known problem around his Pacific Northwest home.
But soon cyclists took notice, a lot of cyclists, “It was just a crappy little website with the worst development in the world but soon there were hundreds of bikes on it, and people successfully recovered bikes.” A few recoveries were all he needed to keep pursuing the project in his free time.
For Hance it was all about figuring out bike thieves, how the thefts happened, why they happened, and how owners could better protect their bikes. The website became not just a place to protect riders from losing their bike, but to help buyers look up used bikes to be sure they were getting a good deal, not a deal too good to be true.
Hance kept at his project, working nights and weekends, and the number of registered bikes rose to the tens of thousands. But then something serendipitous happened. Hance met Seth Herr.
“We just met and we hit it off,” said Hance. Herr was working on solving the same problem, but as a bike mechanic. He approached it not from the perspective of the rider, but from the bike shop. He’d met more than his fair share of new, enthusiastic bike owners who returned to the bike shop downtrodden, once again bike-less, after a theft. So, Herr learned to write code, and set out to create a registration system that could help owners as soon as they left the shop with their new bike.
Herr toured the country after a successful Kickstarter campaign to spread his registration system around the country, one bike shop at a time. At his stop in Portland he ran into Hance. “There was this instant connection,” says Hance. The two quickly realized the potential in combining their systems, and Hance moved his entire database of nearly 30,000 bikes onto Herr’s system. And that’s when these small side projects became something entirely different. “It just ripped the lid off of it. The sum was absolutely greater than the parts,” says Hance. BikeIndex.org was born.
The site works simply: log on, create a profile, enter information about your bike including its serial number, color, and maybe even a photo, and your bike is now part of the database. It’s best to do this as soon as possible as Hance says many bike owners only find BikeIndex after their bike is stolen. If your bike ever is stolen, you can list it as stolen on BikeIndex so that if it appears in a bike shop, on an online forum, or at a police station, riders can let others know it was stolen, and have ownership proof to recover their bike.
Hance says these recoveries come in a variety of ways from the mundane to the tough to believe but true. Many of them are even available on BikeIndex’s blog. Similarly, the site helps buyers of used bikes from being scammed. When you buy a used bike you can simply run its serial number on BikeIndex.org and see if anyone has listed it as stolen.
As the number of bikes in the system, and the size of the community grows, so too has BikeIndex’s outreach, “We are always on the lookout for how to do this bigger, better, faster, easier, with more punch,” says Hance.
While an obvious place to expand would be in city governments and with local police forces, Hance says the bureaucratic rhythm, staffing, and inability to see the problem BikeIndex solves means that often finding real solutions on a reasonable timeline is best done with clever workarounds.
To make the process easy for new bike owners, BikeIndex created an integration with bike shop point-of-sale systems. “When they swipe your credit card all that information on your new bike is already in the computer,” says Hance. “It makes no sense for someone to retype it. We just have a system so that shops can go ‘Oh you’re buying this bike, I’m going to hit a button and put it in the BikeIndex.’” Preventing bike theft and increasing the chances of bike recovery increase when you make the process easy on everyone, except the thieves.
The organization also targeted the point of resale to prevent the movement of stolen bikes. While pawn shops tried to prevent selling stolen bikes by waiting the compulsory 30 days and checking with local police forces, these measures often weren’t enough as police didn’t have time to enter the stolen bikes in their own databases. So, Hance went to the pawn shops themselves. “We identified the largest pawnbroker search system called Leads and I just called them and said ‘Hey, do you want to pull our server for the data?’” says Hance. “They were like ‘Oh f— yeah that’s great.’ We identified what was happening and found somebody to help work around the bureaucratic problems.”
BikeIndex continues to look for partnerships and create workarounds for common problems. They’ve created programs for colleges, universities and corporations with large campuses who can benefit from having a database of bike ownership.
The organization is still growing, and has helped recover over $16 million in bicycles. In some cases that means more than half a million dollars in a single city without municipal support. Of course, BikeIndex will work with municipalities, so if you want greater bike protection in your area, talk to your local legislators.
For Hance, who still does all of his work for BikeIndex on the side as a passion project, it is all worth it when he sees the messages of bike recoveries that come across BikeIndex from bike shops and bike riders that he has never heard of in cities he has never been to. “That to me is that the biggest win. Nothing makes me happier.” And nothing makes riders happier than getting their bike back, so register your bike today.