'Where's George?' money tracking Web site finds big payoff

PHOENIX, May 9 -- It may not buy much, but the $1 bill is forging friendships, reigniting romances and scouting the spread of infectious disease.

More than $800 billion of U.S. currency is in circulation. The vast majority of these bills go untraced as they travel from person to person, but a select $189 billion are being followed.

Where’s George? is an interactive website (www.WheresGeorge.com) where users can register their cash and track its journey across the globe.

“It is a fun and easy way to see where your money goes,” said Susan Coleman, an active Where’s George? user from Phoenix. “All you need is an Internet connection.”

To track their cash, users type in their zip codes and the serial number of the bill. They are also able to include a description of the bill’s condition and how they came across it. The site tracks any denomination of up to $100, but the $1 bill is the most commonly registered.

On the bill, users might write or stamp such phrases as: “Track me at www.WheresGeorge.com” or
“Make a nerd happy- enter this bill at www.WheresGeorge.com” directing its next owner to the website.

Hank Eskin, a database consultant in Brookline, Mass. launched the website in 1998.

“I knew it was a quirky idea when I started it, but I had no idea that I would create an entire hobby out of this idea," he said.

Where’s George? has more than 6 million registered users, and has garnered what some would consider a cult following of dedicated bill trackers who refer to themselves as “Georgers.”

When he was 10, Jordon Kalilich of Deerfield Beach, Fla. said, he collected bills from around the house, but not so he could buy new toys. Kalilich had discovered a new online phenomenon that allowed him to track his (or his parents’) money around the country.

Not only was he an active user, Kalilich said he was so fascinated by Where’s George? that he earned himself a spot in Eskin’s inner circle - Team Aqua, a group of Georgers who assist Eskin by answering emails received via the online contact form.

As a member of Team Aqua, Kalilich said, he noticed the lingo he enjoyed using with his fellow Georgers on the forums might be difficult for newer members to understand. He complied a written list of the underground language into a comprehensive directory dubbed the Encyclopedia Georgetannica.

“It’s a way to keep the various terms that people come up with in one place,” Kalilich said.

Kalilich said it was rare to take a vacation, but as a kid, he saw the world through the eyes of George.

“I lived vicariously through whatever small amount of money I had at the time,” Kalilich said. “It was fun to see where the bills would end up.”

Today, users who share Kalilich’s passion have created in-person networks in every state across the country.

Coleman said she and several other Georgers periodically get together to trade bills, share stories and eat pizza.

“I have never met another Georger that I didn’t like,” she said.

Coleman, better known as Moonchild242 on Where's George?, said she enjoys being a part of a group where her “nerdiness” is appreciated. Her goal is to have a get together in every county in Arizona.

Coleman said she has endured her fair share of strange looks from cashiers when she hands them a wad of marked bills, but most of her family and friends are supportive of her obsession.

“Everybody thinks it is a little weird and off-the-wall,” she said. “I like being the weird one.”

Coleman said she has become so involved with the hobby that she refuses to spend a bill that she hasn’t stamped.

“I use cash whenever possible,” she said. “It doesn’t feel right if it isn’t marked.”

Eskin said he used to sell stamps for the bills on the Where’s George? Web site, but stopped, he said, after being contacted by the U.S. Secret Service.

Advertising on federal dollars is illegal, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, but writing on or marking the bill is not, unless it is rendered unusable.

For new users, this means leaving handwritten notes on the money they want to track, but most veterans have found outside sources to make stamps for them.

Colleen Spiegler of Pittsburgh said she has been an active Where’s George? user for 12 years, and has entered more than 65,000 bills. She said she enjoys attending gatherings with her fellow Georgers, who include everyone from doctors to convenience store owners.

“It is such an interesting mix of people,” she said.

One of her most proud moments as a Georger was getting a 50-state bingo - the name Georgers use for when a bill is tracked to all 50 states.

“There is always hope that you will get a really interesting hit,” she said.

In November 1999, Spiegler said, her photo was featured in a local Pennsylvania paper for an article about her involvement with Where’s George? She said an ex-boyfriend, whom she had dated 10 years prior, contacted her after reading the article. They have been happily married since 2002.

“It’s funny how things work out,” she said.

While Where’s George? is a hobby for some, data derived from the Web site has contributed to scientific research about human mobility and the spread of epidemics.

With the lifespan of a little more than a year, the average dollar bill changes many hands and is capable of traveling far distances, said Dirk Brockmann, theoretical physicist and associate professor at Northwestern University.

Brockmann used data from Where’s George? to measure human mobility patterns and improve models for the spread of disease.

“We wanted to understand how to diseases spread, so we needed to know how humans travel,” Brockmann said.

He first heard about the Web site when visiting a friend in Vermont, but did not initially think it would be an accurate measure of human travel because of the variability involved.

Brockmann said someone could enter a bill someplace and then it could be re-entered in another location, but it is unclear where the bill traveled in between "hits," the word Georgers use to describe what happens when a bill is entered into the Where's George? database.

But after studying the data, he realized that reports of bills traveling longer distances were less common than shorter ones, just as people are much more likely to travel shorter distances.

“I was very surprised by the simplicity that was somehow generated by the bulk of people,” Brockmann said.

Brockmann said he discovered some simple mathematical laws underlying the movement of dollar bills and the patterns of human mobility were hidden in the data.

“In order to learn about how humans travel, we looked at the bills,” he said. “The flux of bills between two counties is approximately proportional to the flux of humans.”

When the H1N1, otherwise known as swine flu, epidemic broke out in 2009, Brockmann and a team of students from Northwestern used a series of complex computer models and algorithms to project the path for the spread of the disease.

The epidemic-modeling team predicted where the disease was headed, what time it would arrive and how many people were going to get sick.

“The spread of H1N1 is a very complicated phenomenon,” Brockmann said. “We predicted hotspots for the spread of [the swine flu].”

Brockmann said he is planning on working with the Federal Reserve to conduct more research with the dataset.

In order to adapt to changing technology, Eskin said Where’s George? will be coming out with Android, Blackberry and iPhone apps in the near future.

Kalilich, who recently graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in computer science, said the application will make it easier for users to enter their bills.

“I think the time has come for a mobile app,” he said.

Although he is no longer as active on the site as he once was, Kalilich said he is grateful for the people he has met and the sense of community Where’s George? creates.

“We all just kind of have this crazy obsession,” he said. “That’s what keeps the site going.”