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More than cash; food for thought?

Richard Buckle


For as long as I have been following financial institutions, payments processors and those deploying ATMs I have considered myself someone who leaves the comfort of the box to explore what lies outside.  Free-thinkers begin exploring opportunities not previously considered. New ideas are floated and products begin appearing simply because there are many individuals prepared to give it a go.

When it comes to NonStop ATM networks, payments processing and all that goes into reliably delivering cash they have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. The success of the humble ATM can be directly attributed to the presence of NonStop systems as much as you can argue that the success of NonStop can be attributed to the popularity of the ATM. To this day, there are more payments solutions product offerings for NonStop than any other solutions where NonStop has a presence. However, this story is more about creativity and what can best be described as food for thought. How many other opportunities for NonStop exist today even as we begin to think about emerging into a new normal?

When it comes to ATMs I have often thought about their tie-in to kiosks, where almost anything can be acquired. I think we have all read of ATMs dispensing Bitcoin, gold and even caviar. There really are no limits as to what we can do with the core technology underpinning today’s modern ATMs. Flexibility continues to be a key consideration when it comes to choosing an ATM vendor. A screen, a keyboard, a printer and a long list of options as to what can go into those cartridges ensure ATMs can continue serving many purposes.

We used to rely on the ATM for stamps. We even looked to ATMs dispensing lottery tickets at sites as varied as restaurants and airports. There was a time where I proposed dispensing boarding passes. It wasn’t truly my original idea, but I ran with it. I teamed with others at a major payments solution provider to present to a very small group that included a bank and an airline and all was going well at first. For a short while I thought that this idea would be a classic outside the box opportunity, but then again, timing is everything. Apple launched the iPhone and that was it. Game over. Everyone wanted to ditch the paper boarding pass preferring instead to look at presenting the screen of their smartphone.

Scrolling through social media channels there is a lot of attention directed at NonStop. Irrespective of your choice of forum if you are part of the NonStop community you know there is considerably passion for the product even after four decades of continuous development. Part of the conversation surrounding NonStop these days is just how well NonStop can support new applications at a time when it’s all about the cloud – virtualization of NonStop has been a remarkable achievement and for some, just the beginning of a new journey for NonStop. And new applications don’t always have to be high tech of appeal to just a select few.

Skinning through newspapers online, one headline jumped off the screen. Rice ATMs cater to Indonesia’s poor as millions face unemployment due to coronavirus was sure to get my attention. Meeting the needs of whole communities with a simple, low-tech repurposing of an ATM certainly qualified as being an outside the box solution. This article written by journalists working with the ABC, an Australian broadcaster, began with the news coming out of Indonesia that, “Authorities have so far rolled out 10 machines across greater Jakarta – home to more than 30 million people – to dispense 1.5 kilograms of rice to the poor, as millions have found themselves out of work due to coronavirus social distancing measures.”

oped june 2020 - 1

Residents practice social distancing as they queue up for free rice
from a rice dispenser machine in Jakarta. (AP: Achmad Ibrahim)

Evidently, all it takes is for a family to “have already registered for rice assistance in his district – a requirement to be eligible to access the rice ATM.” Apparently, “Neighboring Vietnam has reportedly rolled out a rice ATM in their capital Hanoi, dispensing up to 3kg of rice to citizens struggling with the impact of coronavirus.” Bloomberg provided additional information in an April 24, 2020, update, ‘Rice ATMs’ Dispense Free Food to Out-of-Work Vietnamese reporting how “Forget video conferencing and contact tracing apps; the coolest innovation in Vietnam during this coronavirus crisis might be the curious mix of human, machine and mobile tech that is the ‘rice ATM.’”

Apparently the user interface is as basic as it comes. “Behind the machine, the rice is stored in giant elevated vats and funneled through plastic pipes into bags carried by individuals,” said Bloomberg. “When an individual presses the button on rice ATM, a volunteer gets an alert on an app on his or her smartphone to release the rice.”

oped june 2020 - 2

A woman receives rice from a ‘rice ATM’ in the Tan Binh district of
Ho Chi Minh City, April 22. Photographer: Maika Elan/Bloomberg

Images from science fiction movies depicting a dystopian future from the Matrix to Alita, Battle Angel, come to mind. Or perhaps the food dispensing machines in Passengers or the replicators in Star Trek. However, the real story here is that what we may consider to be the most basic of functions provided by today’s ATMs can be leveraged in ways even more beneficial to society. Whether it’s in times of crisis as we are witnessing today with the spread of the global pandemic or simply the necessity to better deliver basic food crops to those who really need them and in so doing, cut out many in the middle that can easily disrupt this all too critical supply chain.

To suggest that an ATM is all about cash is clearly a focus of why we deploy ATMs today. Cash has a remarkable resilience, no matter what the pundits may say. It’s here; it will stay with us for a very long time and it’s still the most reliable means of reinforcing sovereignty. And yet, this amazing machine can be utilized in ways that ensure it’s not only relevant but that it can anchor some of the basics of our society. We have so often talked about feeding the machine but might we not be better off if we talk about the machine feeding us?

Similarly, to relegate NonStop to specific markets is also selling NonStop short. It too is an amazing machine and one we all know is capable of being deployed in support of any real-time mission critical application. Feeding the poor certainly is mission critical for the communities being served but doesn’t this raise the question of just how versatile NonStop has truly become? While there is no indication whatsoever that NonStop is driving these ATMs that’s not the point. Given that there’s more than cash that needs support from the networks we have built, the question we should all be asking surely has to be, what are you tasking you NonStop to support next?