In the early 1990s, many federal and state agencies promoted kiosks as an effective way of disseminating information and government services to the public. In practice, deployment proved more complex than first envisioned. In addition to shrinking public-sector budgets, kiosk programs were plagued by a number of factors -- chiefly, the widespread notion of the Web as a competing medium, the high cost of kiosk deployment, lengthy procurement cycles and the two- or three- year pilot project required to come up with a kiosk system of value to the public.

According to Summit Research Associates President Francie Mendelsohn, kiosk projects also faltered from a lack of clear planning and too little thought to applications, design and maintenance.

Ironically, these same factors later became learning experiences that contributed to successful kiosk models developed by Georgia; Ontario, Canada; New York City; Texas; and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

For the purposes of this discussion, "kiosk" refers to Internet-enabled, interactive kiosks designed primarily to disseminate information and government services to the public.

Influence of the Web

Initially, many considered the Web a simpler, more cost-effective method of providing information for citizens than public-access kiosks. Government agencies that might have supported kiosk

programs shifted resources into developing Web sites. By 1996, high-visibility kiosk projects in several states were stalled or shelved altogether. To some, the kiosk was another Betamax.

North Communications Senior Vice President of Marketing Rick Rommel said this view of the Web is short-sighted.

"The Web is not a competitor to kiosk deployment; it is a synergistic technology. It enhances kiosk control and applications," he said. "Also, the Web doesn't reach all citizens; in fact, it can be argued that those who need public services the most have the least access to high-tech service-delivery channels."

Mendelsohn agreed with this view. "Generally, the very people who need public services the most -- the poor, the homeless, the disabled, the disadvantaged -- do not have access to a computer or to the Web."

Although computers are available in libraries, the people Mendelsohn refers to are not likely to have the skills to use them. By contrast, kiosks providing touch-screen navigation require no computer skills, only the ability to push a few buttons and read the directions for using them. "A public-access kiosk," Rommel added, "is an easy way for some people to get the information they need, rather than trying to ferret it out wandering through the Web. One of the major attributes of this technology is that it presents only information necessary to meet the needs of the user."

Costs

Depending on the number of units in a kiosk network, physical infrastructure and software are the major costs. In small networks of one to 10 units, system design and programming represent the highest costs. In systems of 100 or more units, hardware and maintenance are the big-ticket items. Either way, Rommel said that without a suitable application suite, expenses could outweigh benefits for a single agency.

Public agencies have tried several solutions to mitigate the overall expense of kiosk projects, including spreading the cost over several agencies; partnering with private-sector companies that design, manufacture and operate Internet-enabled kiosk networks; charging local advertisers for program space; and charging user fees for transactional services, such as paying parking tickets, obtaining hunting licenses, renewing drivers' licenses and applying for license plates. Government entities may also partially offset costs by assigning a dollar value to staff hours saved as a result of automating information and selected transactions.

Some vendors offer to install and maintain kiosk systems at no charge, in exchange for revenue-sharing agreements. In such arrangements, the contractor generally formats program changes received from the sponsoring agency, then downloads them via the Internet or intranet to designated