A Vigilante Group Is Busting Bike Thieves from Behind a Computer Screen

Chicago-based 'Bike Index' lets users register their rides, and then track them down if they go missing.

From behind his desk more than 3,000 miles away, Bryan Hance is trying to lead a cyclist revolution in Boston to help bikers keep their rides safe and recover them if they go missing.

“Bikers are a tight-knit group of people, and it’s amazing what you can do when you collaborate with them,” Hance said.

Hance, who helps run a website called the “Bike Index,” where cyclists can register their bikes or browse an open source database to see if a bike they are buying is stolen, is trying to forge alliances with people here in Boston to expand operations.

“We are marching eastward,” he said of the Chicago-based organization. Hance works out of a satellite office in Portland, Oregon. “We look for certain criteria when we branch out. Is it one of the cities that have embraced biking? Do we have local support? We are looking to beef up for sure. But it’s slow going.”

Bike Index started as a website founded by Seth Herr, where cyclists could easily pre-register bikes online once purchased, a process that was tedious before the site’s inception, and one that riders usually skipped due to the bureaucratic process of pulling together the proper paperwork and getting it to the right authorities.

On the other end of the spectrum, Hance was running his own website, called StolenBicycleRegistry.com, which focused more on bike recovery. His model was a bit different from what Herr had going, but with a similar goal in mind. Rather than having people pre-register bikes before they’re stolen, users on Hance’s site could enter a serial number or bike description into a database system and see if the bike they were about to buy was “hot.” Users could also get the word out about a stolen bike so people could help trace and track it down.

When Herr launched a Kickstarter last year to bring Bike Index to the next level, Hance chipped in, helping him reach his $50,000 goal. The two eventually met up in Portland, and decided it would be to the benefit of the national bike community if they combined forces, putting their resources together to create one expansive network where cyclists could both track down stolen bikes, and register new ones.

“We got to talking and we said ‘we have to combine,’” said Hance. “Then we joined up as one unified front.”

Now, with one website, Herr and Hance are opening their database up to new cities, and Boston made the list.

Part of what the team at Bike Index does when reaching out to new communities is launches special Twitter accounts and bots that automatically tweet information, photos, and bike descriptions when a ride is stolen.

For example, if someone in Boston registers their bike on the Bike Index website—they can do this either before it’s stolen, or after it’s nabbed—the Twitter account @StolenBikeBos will automatically tweet out that information to followers, letting them know to keep an eye out for the bike, or be wary if someone tries to sell it in person or online.

Bike Index also created a bot called @IsItStolen, so people can tweet a serial number to the account, and get an instant reply telling them if the bike has been registered with them as missing property.

The third component to their operations is to simply let users visit the website, type in the serial number or description of a bike, and then get the results.

“We can’t be in every place physically, but we can come up with the tools and give the tools to everybody to use,” said Hance. “Boston is one of about 20 feeds we’re running for the auto-tweets and localization work we’re doing.”

Already, just months into the Boston rollout, Bike Index’s model has proved effective. More than a handful of stolen bikes have been registered on the site and shared via social media so people can help find them. Hance, who lives in Portland, said it’s important to connect with locals, bike shops, and cyclists who know the spots are that bikes most commonly go missing. Since he’s on the left coast, he’s unfamiliar with how things work in Boston, so teaming up with residents with a working knowledge of the city’s community is key to making the expansion a success.

“We are looking for help, both in terms of eyeballs and getting the word out. There is that local, specialized knowledge. It takes people in the area to figure out the best way to tackle this. Local knowledge is always best,” he said.  “We’re super interested in talking with people from the Boston area. We want to know where are the hot spots, where the bad and good guys are, and which shops should we reach out to for help.”