Infrastructure

Digital Signs Could Become the Next Tool for Smart Cities

The Soofa Sign is getting tested in local government and could co-mingle public and commercial information in a single space.

by / January 18, 2017

Smart city initiatives often emphasize a mix-and-match approach to technology: lamp posts that also measure air quality, for example.

Slated to pilot in half a dozen cities in the coming months, the Soofa Sign offers an example of such synergies. Take a bus stop sign and make it digital. Now layer on transit data, municipal announcements and even some paid advertising. When combined, these items may add up to more than the sum of their parts.

“There are other ways to deliver these different kinds of information, but this is an interesting new format that we want to explore,” said Tom Evans, executive director of the Cambridge (Mass.) Redevelopment Authority, which is piloting the technology.

Founded as an outgrowth of the MIT Media Lab in 2014, Cambridge, Mass.-based Soofa Technologies said it has deals to launch additional pilots in New York City, Los Angeles, Norfolk, Va., and Austin, Texas, in 2017.

The company made inroads in the civic tech space last year with the introduction of a solar-powered park bench that serves as both a charging station for personal devices and a Wi-Fi-enabled sensor to collect data on usage levels in parks and civic spaces. Boston, Oak Park, Ill., and Sunny Isles Beach, Fla., have piloted the bench, the company reported.

Its latest offering aims to combine a range of uses on a digital signage platform. The tall, freestanding sign could co-mingle public and commercial information in a single space for the benefit of citizens.

“Right now bus stop advertising mostly goes to big national brands, because those ads are expensive to produce,” Soofa CEO and Co-Founder Sandra Richter said. “By going digital it becomes possible to change that content easily, so you can begin to use it in different ways. It becomes a platform that can combine civic uses with for-profits and even private citizens.”

The Cambridge Redevelopment Authority placed its sign at the busy Kendall Square subway stop, which services MIT and a thriving tech-startup community. The tech firms post want ads on the sign, while the redevelopment authority uses it to post subway schedules and promote its own events.

“In summer there is a farmer’s market, there are evening events in the neighborhood that we will advertise," Evans said. "Right now, we are using it to announce public meetings, as a means of government transparency and outreach. We are on the Web and Twitter and social media, but this gives us an added way of doing that kind of outreach.”

On the tech side, the sign’s software employs applets to perform predefined functions, for instance using APIs to interface with the mayor’s tweets or the bus schedule. An applet might also grab data from an event calendar or pull from a communitywide emergency alert system.

While the integration of messaging has gone smoothly in Cambridge, the agency has faced some challenges in adapting its message to the new, electronic format.

“From a government perspective, we tend to publish notices with basic time-and-place data. In this format that comes off a little bland," said Evans. "You need a photograph, maybe an aerial of the neighborhood or images of people collaborating at work. We want to utilize the screen element, rather than just putting text up there.”

On the plus side, because digital signage is untested territory, Evans has some wiggle room in how he presents news to the community. “There is no prescribed format for this type of outreach, so we have some flexibility on how we work with it,” he said.

Soofa said it is aiming to craft a risk-free financial proposal for cities willing to experiment with the medium. If a municipality will take on the sign, the company will foot the bill and reimburse itself over time from ad revenues. Richter said a sign may generate $20,000 to $40,000 in annual revenues depending on where and how it is used.

She wouldn’t disclose how much the company will be paid in this model. “It’s going to be a big investment and big risk for us, but we believe in the model and the cities we are talking with believe in the model,” she said.

With conventional signage, “we have these huge communications surfaces all over the city and they are not filled with very relevant content. At the same time, we have civic leaders struggling to find ways to connect with the public,” Richter said. “We need democratized communication channels.”

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.