HUD expands kiosk program

Less than a year after setting up its first computer-based kiosks to provide information to the public, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has decided to expand the project nationwide.

Just as automated teller machines allow people to withdraw cash at all hours, the HUD kiosks, with a World Wide Web-like browser, enable users to pull up basic information about agency services and programs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The kiosks supplement the broader range of information available through HUD's Web site and at HUD offices.

The first HUD kiosk went into the original "storefront" office opened in Washington, D.C., last May. The others are placed in federal buildings, city halls, subway stations and shopping malls across the country - wherever the HUD field staff thought the public might stop and use the kiosks.

"By the end of this year we'll have one in every city where HUD has an office," said Candis Harrison, Web manager at HUD. "We have 29 up and running now, and we're going to be adding 50 more."

Based on the success with its program, HUD held a meeting last week with other agencies interested in sharing experiences, learning about kiosk programs and exploring possible partnerships. The meeting was expected to include representatives from the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, the General Services Administration and the National Partnership for Reinventing Government.

So far, the HUD kiosks are among the most successful of their kind in government or elsewhere, according to Francie Mendelsohn, president of Summit Research Associates Inc., a market research and consulting firm in Rockville, Md.

The kiosks are Web-based, serving as the first layer of the HUD Web site, and that is one of the main reasons they have been so successful, analysts said. "[HUD] made the kiosk a subset of their Web site," Mendelsohn said. "You're not going to get conflicting information."

Another important part of the HUD success is that the agency is providing basic information that citizens want in an accessible manner, she said.

At the kiosks, citizens can find listings of HUD homes for sale, how to buy a home, rental help and a calculator to determine if they will qualify for a Federal Housing Administration loan. "It's not so technically 'out there' that the average citizen, the citizen this is intended for, cannot use it," Mendelsohn said. "It really is meeting a need."

Besides the basic HUD services, a lot of users have tapped into a section called HUD in Your Community, which provides information on HUD-funded projects throughout the country. "That surprised us, the amount of interest that area generated," Harrison said. "People are interested in how their federal dollars are being used."

Information gathered about the most-visited areas at the kiosks was used for the recent redesign of the HUD Web site. For example, HUD saw the response to the bright, user-friendly kiosks as a hint for how the Web site should be designed.

"It's kind of a whole different face for the government," Harrison said. "You can tell a lot about how [the public] thinks by what they use."

HUD will be making changes to the kiosks, updating them to keep the data and technology current. "We would like to make them more interactive," Harrison said. This possibly could include allowing citizens to input loan and housing applications, she said.

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