Columnist: Big Smart Touch Screens Zing Data To And From Neighborhoods

January 2, 2013

By Neal Peirce

NEW YORK -- High-definition touch-screen information displays are customized by precise location. Each kiosk exhibits local maps, real-time storm warnings, event notices, bus and subway arrival times. And each provides two-way communications with city emergency services, updated as needed on a second-by-second basis. Locations are set at busy neighborhood and downtown spots.

These new electronic show-offs, each customized for its specific address, have begun to "go live" around New York's Union Square. By spring, they will eventually be mounted at roughly 250 New York City locations. And soon, they'll spread to London and Los Angeles, then Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco and an expanding list of cities, U.S. and international.

Not surprisingly, there's an entrepreneurial firm -- City24/7 -- pushing hard to field the new service and make it a leader in instant communications that can make our cities more user-friendly, personalized, and safer. It's engaged a powerful business player -- Cisco, a global technology systems developer that's increasingly city-focused. And the natural "first" client is New York, a leader in opening city data and applying new technology under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

A central goal, says City24/7 CEO Tom Touchet, a media professional (earlier executive producer of NBC's "Today" show), is to create a digital channel that will relay important messaging, rapidly and accurately, to citizens. In an event such as Hurricane Sandy, the project's "smart screens" are built to broadcast advance warnings; post-storm they can disseminate city and Red Cross recovery information and tips on how viewers can volunteer by donating food or clothes or helping with recovery operations.

The touch-inviting screens are big -- 32 inches to 65 inches in diameter. The first installations are mostly on the side of New York's many decommissioned pay phone booths, conveniently tapping the electric power lines already there. Alternative installation sites run from bus shelters to train stations and major entryways. All are connected to a fiber network and redundantly connected by wireless.

And they're the soul of versatility, also broadcasting a Wi-Fi signal that can be picked up by nearby smartphones, tablets or laptop computers. Approach one of the kiosks (or pick up its signal on your own device) and you see a rundown on how many minutes you have to catch the next subway train, listings of nearby restaurants, or information -- especially this season -- on schedules for holiday events and open-air markets.

Want other information? Each kiosk has large buttons -- "What," "When" or "Where" -- that any user can tap. Each opens an intuitive path to what he or she is curious about -- from checking on hours for a neighborhood art exhibit to reporting a fire or calling police in an emergency.

Do the kiosks carry ads? Yes -- roughly 25 percent of their space. Just as cities historically received a share of revenue from pay phones on public property, or from allowing outdoor advertising, so they'll be entitled to a share of the kiosks' ad revenue, says Touchet. Plus, cities will get a share of mobile app revenue and online transactions -- for example, movie tickets ordered and paid through by users' smartphones connecting to the system.

More importantly, cities can bolster their security systems by tapping the kiosks' strong processing power and fiber network connections to run video surveillance or environmental monitoring systems. Sensors in the screens will make it possible for public officials to warn people about dangerous chemicals or biohazards. Cameras mounted at the sites will be able to pivot almost 360 degrees, keeping track of suspicious activity.

And if a 911 call is made through the system, the central office clerk will be able to see the person in distress and what's happening in the surrounding neighborhood. Plus, with so-called "video backhaul," recorded footage of any incident could be preserved for later inspection.

What happens if electric service fails? The kiosks have backup batteries to keep the system operational at least 24 hours.

OK, one may say, all this new technology sounds intriguing, but is it just one more product being pushed onto cities by profit-focused partners?

Well, profit motives run strong in the human bloodstream, and public disclosure of terms is important.

But I sense an almost contagious "cities of the 21st century" enthusiasm pervading this experiment. New York, Bloomberg-style, sees an entrepreneurial opening to serve citizens as well as keeping the town competitive. Cisco identifies a company as a prime example of its recently formed Internet Business Solutions Group that aims, beyond profits, to seek out "shared economies" that foster public-private partnerships that help cities around the world prosper and succeed.

And City24/7's CEO Touchet insists: "We believe these advanced systems will help to inform, protect and revitalize cities and their neighborhoods. We make that a reality -- with access for all -- in a way that delivers both new services and city revenue. That's a game-changer."

Neal Peirce's email address is nrp@citistates.com.

(c) 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities.