FutureStructure

Kansas City, Mo., Installs First Smart City Kiosks Downtown

The city has put in the first two of its planned network of 25 kiosks meant to help connect people to what's going on around them.

by / March 29, 2016
Workers set up one of the first smart city kiosks near a streetcar line in downtown Kansas City. Screenshot/Kansas City

Kansas City, Mo., is about three weeks into its installation of smart city kiosks downtown, and so far the city’s chief innovation officer is happy with how things have been going.

The city installed its first two kiosks downtown on March 7, just in time for the Big 12 basketball championship, and was able to use the first two as a sort of intelligence-gathering opportunity. Though CIO Bob Bennett cautions that the number of users was likely inflated because of the draw-in of basketball fans, the public response to the kiosks was still better than he had hoped for. In their first weekend of operation, people interacted with the kiosks more than 300,000 times. The average time people spent using the machines was between one and two minutes, while Bennett only expected people to spend 30 seconds to a minute at a time with the machines.

“It’s really becoming a social activity site,” he said.

For now, one of the main functions of the Kansas City kiosks is connecting people with businesses and events going on around them. Users can see menus for nearby restaurants, search for things to do and interact with content from local sports organizations such as the Royals and Chiefs. The kiosks can also take selfies of users and email them the photo. When the 2.2-mile downtown streetcar line begins operating at the beginning of May, the kiosks will also tell users exactly where the streetcar is and when it should arrive.

They also support ads from nearby businesses — often very close by, according to Bennett. The kiosks can offer targeted advertising to small, local businesses that might not typically have the opportunity for that level of sophistication in their marketing, he said.

The ads also help provide a return-on-investment for the kiosks.

“The cool thing is that it pays for itself,” Bennett said. “The businesses that put their ad on there, and if you imagine an iPhone screen, about a third of it can be used for ad space.”

He said he expects the kiosks to pay for themselves in about 10 years.

Kansas City kiosks are a tad different from New York’s LinkNYC kiosks — the main purpose of those installations is to act as Wi-Fi hot spots, where Kansas City’s only connect to Wi-Fi but don’t themselves provide connectivity. And while Sidewalk Labs, the Alphabet-backed company responsible for LinkNYC, has outlined a strategy to use public kiosks as a mounting point for data-gathering sensors in the future, Bennett said his city’s kiosks won’t play host to sensors.

The city expects a few more kiosks to arrive this week, and it will continue installing the remaining 23 kiosks until about the end of April.

The influx of visitors also gave the city a chance to identify a couple of problem areas to fix — two, really, and both related to video. Bennett said the kiosks were having trouble playing video, and to fix the problems they needed better audio-video cards, as well as more bandwidth from the public Wi-Fi network in order to boost refresh rates.

The kiosks are part of a broader smart city effort Kansas City is in the midst of implementing. Along with the kiosks, Bennett’s plan includes the public Wi-Fi network, the streetcar line and sensors mounted on traffic lights that work with dimmable LEDs to brighten or dim lighting as needed based on how many people are in the area.

Kansas City is also one of seven finalist cities competing for a $50 million prize through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge. The city’s proposal for the competition suggests that the money, along with the numerous services technology vendors are offering to the winner, could help Kansas City expand its smart city idea from one downtown corridor to a much larger swath of the city and most of its population.

“We’re not just going to be a piloted part of a smart city," Bennett said, "we will be a truly unified smart city."

Ben Miller Staff Writer

Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.