Digital solutions for the streets of Austin

Benefits of smart kiosks— and why Austin isn’t there yet

Austin is growing into its own as a smart city.

City Council will soon learn about the results of the Smart City Strategic Roadmap it tasked staff with creating last November. Austin recently won a Smart Cities Readiness Challenge grant from Smart Cities Council, the world’s largest smart cities network. And Austin will play host next month to the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo, convening leading technology providers with city leaders.

But Austin’s neighbors to the north and south are ahead of the game on a smart city technology that provide essential information and services to pedestrians: interactive kiosks.

Two examples of kiosks from LQD/Verizon (left) and CIVIQ Smartscapes (right)

Interactive kiosks — or smart kiosks or smartscapes, depending on who you ask — are street-located hubs that offer wayfinding, free phone calls and wi-fi, device charging, transit updates, and two-way citizen engagement with city services. They are typically ad-supported, thus costing taxpayers nothing.

Both Dallas and San Antonio are rolling out their own initiatives.

Dallas launched its smart city living lab in March “with the installation of an interactive kiosk outside the Dallas Entrepreneur Center at 311 N. Market St. in March that will provide way-finding to visitors of the West End. The living lab effort will continue in the coming months with the installation of smart lighting, sensors to measure air quality, and other initiatives.” (Dallas Morning News)

In San Antonio this past February, “Bexar County commissioners approved a pilot program this week for several Wi-Fi kiosks to be installed downtown near the courthouse in an effort to expand internet access and connectivity in the urban core.” (San Antonio Business Journal)

Farther from home, New York City is replacing antiquated pay phones with 7,500 kiosks as part of the LinkNYC project:

A quick aside: LinkNYC is using Austin’s own Aunt Bertha as the units’ gateway for area social services.

So why not Austin?

In short, it’s against the law.

Austin’s sign ordinance, which governs where and what type of signs may be placed around the city, was written more than three decades ago — well before the technology of a smart kiosk was available. As a result, city code prohibits digital billboards of any type.

But there is a conversation developing at City Hall about smart kiosks. Early presentations regarding the development of Austin’s Smart City Strategic Roadmap — a framework for the foundation, policy, teams, services, technology, and business models for Austin’s smart city future — touched on smart kiosks.

CapMetro, Austin’s transit authority, is currently working on a separate demonstration project to roll out kiosks at a few locations across the city — because the agency is not subject to Austin’s sign ordinance. In January, Austin Tech Alliance participated in a breakout session with CapMetro leaders to help brainstorm potential kiosk content, with the goal of offering useful, Austin-centric information.

Your thoughts

What do you think? Could Austin benefit from a pilot project to allow smart kiosks in areas of the city with high pedestrian traffic?

Austin Tech Alliance is a member-based nonprofit dedicated to promoting civic engagement in Austin’s tech sector. We focus on:

  • Educating the tech grassroots on issues that impact them
  • Advocating for tech-forward solutions to community challenges
  • Activating the tech community to speak up, participate, and vote

Learn more about becoming an ATA member.

Digital solutions for the streets of Austin was originally published in Austin Startups on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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