Self-Service Takes Off

Touchscreen kiosks gain public-sector acceptance.

by / November 20, 2003
Suddenly, they are everywhere. At checkout counters in retail stores, such as Home Depot and Kroger. In fast-food restaurants, including McDonald's and Jack in the Box. At airport check-in counters. And, of course, in virtually every bank in America.

They are touchscreen service kiosks, and apparently America has finally embraced the machines they once shunned as too complicated and too untrustworthy to use.

Nearly 13,000 self-checkout systems will have been installed in supermarkets by the end of the year, according to an article in The New York Times. That's double the number in 2001. Delta Air Lines uses touchscreen kiosks to check in passengers, and 22 million of them -- 40 percent of Delta's total -- picked up their boarding passes using the machines this year, up from 350,000 in 2001.

The surge in use is partly due to improvements in technology. But customers are also using them out of frustration when interacting with service workers. Users of the machines say they prefer touchscreens to having to deal with what are often surly or negative cashiers and attendants.

And people now trust the technology, which has been around for nearly 20 years. "If we asked people even a few years ago which would be more likely to make a mistake, an ATM or a cashier, they would say the ATM," Clifford Nass, a professor of communications at Stanford University, told the Times. "Now people would say the cashier. That's an amazing change."

Businesses are more than happy to give consumers what they want, and it's easy to see why. An airline kiosk costs less than $10,000, compared with a salary for a customer service agent of $20,000 to $40,000, plus benefits, explained an airline industry consultant to the Times. Self-checkout machines pay for themselves in about 15 months.

What About the Public Sector?
Almost as soon as there were touchscreen kiosks, there have been attempts to apply the technology to the public sector. In the mid-1980s, IBM partnered with Public Technology Inc., a nonprofit association of local governments, to create the 24-hour city hall, a stand-alone kiosk used by a handful of cities and counties. Less than 10 years later, the state of California launched Info-Cal, a newer, more up-to-date version of the local kiosk, with the goal of placing hundreds of the information kiosks around the state.

But like the IBM-PTI project, Info-Cal never took off, because of cost, cumbersome technology and because the touchscreens never produced a return on their investment. A similar project launched in the 1990s by the General Services Administration and the National Partnership for Reinventing Government envisioned placing thousands of government kiosks in shopping malls around the country. Less than 100 units made it into the public space.

But while America had trouble embracing public-sector kiosks, the rest of the world's governments has gone ahead and put the technology to a variety of uses. (Out of an estimated 25,000 government kiosks in operation around the world, just 10 percent are in the United States, according to KIOSK magazine.) A state in India has placed touchscreen kiosks in 177 villages so farmers can obtain land records for a fee of only 30 cents, which is much cheaper than having to pay hefty bribes to government officials at the regional land offices, according to Dr. Satya N. Prattipati at the University of Scranton.

Land-records access kiosk in Karnataka, India

Other countries in the developing world are also embracing self-service kiosks as a way to bring government services to rural populations that speak many different languages and don't have Internet access. South Africa is one country considering a major investment in kiosks that will serve its rural populations.

Even where language or Internet access isn't a problem, governments

are using kiosks for the same reason as airlines and grocery stores. They are cheap, and the technology works. The United Kingdom has replaced the nation's job boards with 9,000 networked kiosks so that job seekers can look for work among the nearly 300,000 jobs listed in the system. Eventually, the self-service computers will list international jobs as well.

And in the United States, federal, state and local governments are using touchscreen kiosks for certain discrete jobs, such as paying parking fines, purchasing lottery tickets, obtaining subway and bus fare cards, paying property taxes and allowing driver application and testing at state departments of motor vehicles.

One reason the public sector here hasn't used touchscreen machines more abundantly is that working on kiosk programs for government agencies can be extremely complex compared to private-sector applications, according to one vendor.

And unions aren't too happy about having kiosks replace workers, something that is beginning to happen in the private sector.

Nor are the machines entirely user-friendly, despite all the technological advances. Airline employees often have to soothe passengers after a frustrating kiosk encounter, according to the Times. And 25 percent of subway riders surveyed by New York City Transit recently said they had had a problem with the city's recently installed touchscreen fare card machines.
Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology.

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