RFID Brings Breast Cancer Awareness to Facebook

By Claire Swedberg

Participants in Susan G. Komen for the Cure's three-day, 60-mile events wear EPC Gen 2 RFID tags that link to Facebook pages, to update friends and family members about their progress.

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For the past few years, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a nonprofit organization focused on eliminating breast cancer, has been holding 60-mile three-day walks intended to raise funds and awareness in the United States regarding breast cancer and early detection. This year, thousands of Susan G. Komen 3-Day participants are sharing their progress during the events with friends and family members, via a radio frequency identification solution that links them to their Facebook pages.

At each three-day, 60-mile event, hundreds or thousands of participants walk to raise awareness about breast cancer, and money to help cure the disease. The RFID-based solution—a Bank of America initiative produced for the Komen foundation—was provided by Qnectus, a cloud-centric technology company headquartered in Newark, Del., with offices in Boston and New York City.


Dustin Sterkenburg, Qnectus’ VP of engineering

To date, the system has been deployed for the three-day walks in Boston, Cleveland, Chicago and the greater Detroit area. Additional walks are scheduled throughout the country on a weekly basis. In each case, a participant simply passes over reader antennas located at the starting and finishing lines, thereby triggering a posting on his or her Facebook site announcing that person’s participation in the walk and its efforts to support breast cancer survivors in finding a cure.

Qnectus specializes in software and custom services, such as hosting desktops, applications and servers. This installation, says Dustin Sterkenburg, Qnectus’ VP of engineering, is the company’s first RFID-based solution. “We have seen some of the creative uses [for RFID],” he says, “and decided to incorporate the technology in our latest project for Komen.”

The solution consists of several stations, each of which includes a laptop, a durable, weather-resistant RFID reader and antennas. Each station reads tags as walkers pass by, and transmits the tag IDs to a cloud-based server, via a cellular 4G connection, where data is linked to Facebook. Every station also comes with a GPS module, to provide a real-time view into that station’s location and operability.

The solution is designed to be highly mobile. Stations are packed in durable Pelican cases. A company known as Event 360 runs the three-day events. Its staff can set up an RFID reader infrastructure within a few hours, and then remove and reinstall the system daily during the fundraiser.

Initially, Qnectus began working with Bank of America and Susan G. Komen for the Cure to provide a solution for tracking participants’ locations. The focus was on finding a method for providing location data regarding the walkers, in order to manage crowds, identify delays and provide emergency rescue information. For example, if a thunderstorm were imminent, workers would know where walkers were located on the track, and be able to send vehicles to collect them.

However, when Bank of America and the Komen foundation viewed how the solution could be employed for social networking, they chose to begin with simply connecting participants with their friends and family. Many who take part in the walks are breast cancer survivors, or the loved ones of those who have either survived or died from the disease. For them, Sterkenburg says, sharing what they are doing with others can be much more important than for others using Facebook at public venues, such as at a concert or festival. The partners predicted that many participants would want to share what they were doing on Facebook. During the first few RFID-enabled walks, he says, most did, in fact, collect the RFID-enabled lanyards—though in some cases, they took them as memorabilia, rather than to link information to a Facebook page, since the Komen walk logo is printed on the front of each lanyard.

Although the system is currently being used only for linking participants to their Facebook pages, Qnectus’ software enables users to view the number of participants passing the start and finish points, as well as when this occurs, based on the location and time of each RFID read.

With the system in place, participants arriving at the event receive an Alien Technology ALN-9640 Squiggle ultrahigh-frequency EPC Gen 2 UHF RFID tag, adhered to a graphic-printed card, and protected by a plastic cover to keep moisture out. This cover is attached to a lanyard that can be hung around that person’s neck. “This gave us a clear line of sight to the tag from the tripod antennas,” Sterkenburg states, “and a fantastic read rate on the Threshold antennas placed under protective mats on the ground.”

While almost all participants have opted to take the free RFID-enabled lanyard, each person must choose whether to participate in the social-networking functionality. To do so, a walker utilizes a touchscreen PC with ThingMagic USB readers, at which that person can scan his or her tag and enter his or her Facebook account name and password.

A second station is installed at the course’s starting line, to capture each ID number of each passing tag. Here, Impinj Speedway Revolution R420 readers with a combination of four Impinj Threshold and two tripod-mounted 9dB MTI Wireless Edge circularly polarized outdoor antennas mounted on an adjustable tripod. The Threshold antennas are placed under rubber mats on the ground, stretching across the starting line, while the two mounted antennas are positioned just beyond the starting point, providing redundancy in the event that any tags are not interrogated by the Threshold antennas.

Once a tag is read, its ID number is transmitted to the Qnectus server, where Qnectus software links the ID to that person’s Facebook page and password, and then forwards that information to Facebook. On the participant’s page (as well as on the news feeds of that individual’s friends and family members), a message is displayed, such as “Today I start my 60-mile journey! Three days! Making an impact in the fight to end breast cancer.”

Each day, walkers complete 20 miles of the total walking distance. At the finish line, they pass a third RFID read station that employs the same configuration as the starting-line reader, with both Threshold and tripod-mounted antennas in place for the purpose of redundancy. The interrogators are then moved, in order to create a new start and finish line for the next day’s walk. Qnectus also supplied a ThingMagic USB reader to capture tag IDs at other points during or after the walk, as necessary.

The total number of participants varies at each event, but an average of approximately 500 to 1,000 walkers wear RFID-enabled lanyards throughout the three-day event. In Boston, at the first walk that utilized the technology, a total of 7,800 read events were captured throughout the three-day period.

There were a few initial challenges to address, Sterkenburg notes. Some participants wished to opt in to the system, but forgot their Facebook passwords, which increased wait times for others queued up behind them. Another challenge involved limited cellular bandwidth, due to weak signal strength or hilly terrain along the route.

“Overall, participants were very excited to be able to share their status throughout the three days to friends and family,” Sterkenburg states, “and genuinely expressed positive feedback on the entire experience.”

Looking ahead, Qnectus hopes to provide the solution for a variety of other types of events and organizations, including political campaigns and car dealerships. “Qnectus has lots of ideas that extend well beyond just Facebook and social media,” Sterkenburg says.

In addition, Qnectus is currently in discussions with Bank of American and Susan G. Komen for the Cure to deploy an expanded version of the RFID system next year that would include tracking the locations of individuals for traffic management and emergency services.