UAE professor’s 'selfie' payment model wins funding

UAE professor has won $100,000  to develop technology that allows people to pay for items using a selfie

A Khalifa University professor has won $100,000 in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop technology that allows people to pay for items using a photo of themselves.

Dr Ernesto Damiani’s ‘Pay with a Selfie’ scheme uses photos taken on a smartphone to enable the exchange of money for people with limited access to banks, ATMs or transfer agents.

“Everybody has a smart phone, even in rural or developing areas,” says Damiani, who leads the UAE university’s Big Data initiative. “And everyone takes ‘selfies,’ so the ability to use these pictures, and combine them with a form of encryption that is unforgeable, and use this as a method of payment, will certainly change how transactions are performed in developing countries.”

The system requires both buyer and seller to take pictures of each other and include details of the purchase - such as holding up a price tag – in the photo. The photo is then sent to a third party to verify the image and process the payment.

Using encryption software, the agent reconstructs the image of the customer and seller, showing the amount due, before completing the transaction.

The system could be particularly useful for people in areas with low network connectivity, or those who may be illiterate, Damiani said.

“It may aid in the transition from bartering systems to monetary systems, that will, in turn, spur the growth of the economy.”

More than 2 billion people worldwide have no access to financial services, according to World Bank data. The Middle East is the worst affected region, with only 14 per cent of adults having access to the financial system, compared to a global average of 62 per cent.

Mobile money, which offers people access to digital banking services through their cellphone, is expected to pay a critical role in increasing financial inclusion in the world’s poorest countries. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 12 per cent of adults – or 64 million people – already have mobile money accounts.

The funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will be used for further testing and development of the ‘Selfie’ system. The next stage will see students at Abomey Calavi University in Benin, West Africa, trialling the technology on campus, before rolling it out in their towns and villages.

“Innovative ideas like this one could change the way custom is conducted around the world,” said Dr Mohammed Al Mualla, senior vice president for research and graduate studies at Khalifa University. “Seeing this first hand, particularly innovation aimed at improving lives, is very exciting.”