The kiosk conundrum
As political and economic pressure increases for governments to offer citizens
Internet access, one idea has lurked on the sidelines — the kiosk.
Some officials never liked the idea to begin with, writing off kiosks
as pricey and an invitation for vandals. Others thought the stand-alone
terminals, located in public areas such as malls and bus stations, served
a purpose — at least before computers became available at libraries and
in people's homes. But some government officials are now giving kiosks a
The pro-kiosk movement is being advanced by a small but increasingly
vocal group of people, who believe so strongly in their theory that they're
backing it with large kiosk projects. Proponents say the kiosk is a strong
component in any effort to close the digital divide and is too often dismissed
because people don't realize how much the technology has changed.
"The kiosk projects that started off in the 1980s were ambitious for the
technology that was available then, but that technology has finally caught
up with the original vision, which is to provide seamless services to the
citizen," said Sam Gallagher, a member of the federal government's Interagency
Working With the Web
Kiosks are composed of a hard outer shell, an internal computer and
a graphic interface that enables users to make selections using a touch
screen. Older kiosks were stand-alone entities, so the units couldn't be
networked with other computers and relied on special kiosk applications.
Today's kiosks still use kiosk-specific interfaces, complete with touch-screen
capabilities and a simpler menu geared toward the "less-than-five-minute"
applications kiosk users seek. But the kiosks are often networked to back-end
application servers and Web servers, enabling users to view e-mail messages
and take advantage of e-government applications, such as paying taxes with
a credit card or adding their name to a housing waiting list.
Although some experts say Internet access is killing kiosks, others
see it as the kiosk's savior.
"It's not an either/or proposition with the Web and kiosks," said Glenn
Gruber, vice president of sales and marketing for Golden Screens Interactive
Technologies Inc. "They're Web-enabled, but the information is basically
presented in [automated teller machine] style, so a state-of-the-art kiosk
is simple enough for somebody's grandparent to use, but Internet-savvy people
who are out of the office can also check their e-mail, track traffic information
or pay a parking ticket."
New York City, which recently completed a pilot program of its forthcoming
$1.3 million CityAccess project, found that to be exactly the case. During
the demonstration phase, more than 2.7 million people used the 59 kiosks
located throughout the five boroughs, even though the early kiosks did not
rely on Web-based applications.
When the project goes live this summer, however, the screens will display
the home page of the recently unveiled New York City Web portal and give
users the opportunity to use the site just as anyone might from a home or
office computer. The Web site itself is getting more than 5.7 million hits
per month, and city officials expect the integration of the Internet and
kiosks to help bump that to more than 10 million hits.
"It's an interface to the Internet, not a separate environment," said
Allan Dobrin, commissioner of the New York City Department of Information
Technology and Telecommunications. "We wanted to have a place where New
Yorkers who don't have the financial means to own a computer could have
the same opportunity to interface with their government as do people who
have more resources available to them."
Fairfax County, Va., has also Web-enabled the kiosks that make up its
Community Resident Information Service project, but instead of a government
home page, users see a completely different package on the screen, one that
gets right to the point about information and services available.
"The kiosk is meant for you to walk up, do your business and walk away,"
explained David Molchany, chief information officer of Fairfax County. "It's
a different type of experience than going to our Web site, where people
surf around and do a lot of different things. With the kiosk, it's a much
more focused experience."
Almost all municipalities with kiosks also have libraries and schools
with Internet access. But kiosks have the added benefit of being available
24 hours a day and located in high-traffic areas where people might need
the information, such as a transportation center. Or, they're in places
where people might stumble onto them, such as a shopping mall or street
Georgia, which first installed kiosks to help distribute information during
the 1996 Summer Olympics, has expanded them throughout the state and hopes
to make its forthcoming portal available at kiosk terminals.
Now the kiosks run on an interconnected frame-relay network and contain
Web-based travel, tourism and transportation information. But Gina Tiedemann,
director of GeorgiaNet, sees kiosks as highly secure Internet appliances.
"It will be just another channel to access our enterprise portal," she
said, noting that the kiosks receive more than 1 million hits per month.
"Some people will use a desktop computer, some will use a cell phone, and
those who don't have other access will use a kiosk."
Still, kiosks are not exactly setting the IT world on fire. It's easy
enough to find nonbelievers who, when given a choice, have opted not to
The Chicago Police Department, for example, had planned to use about
50 kiosks in grocery stores and other high-traffic places to inform residents
about crime statistics in their neighborhoods. But Lt. Jonathan Lewin, a
spokesman for the department, said the idea was nixed when the Internet
became so popular.
"With the availability of Internet access at all Chicago public libraries
and high schools, we thought that was a better and more cost-effective way
to reach a wider audience," he said.
The cost is certainly a fair consideration. For starters, the price
of a kiosk project is steep for equipment, installation and ongoing maintenance.
Fairfax County spent $1.5 million to install 25 kiosks and spends another
$250,000 to $300,000 each year to upgrade the equipment and investigate
new programs and technologies.
Moreover, Greg Scott, Fairfax County's kiosk project manager, said there
is no solid way to measure a financial return on investment, although the
county does expect to save money in employee productivity and mailing and
"It's hard to quantify how long it will take to pay itself off, but
the goal was really just to make sure that everyone has access to government
information and services," Scott said. "So I guess our real [benefit] is
at the constituent level, making it easier for them."
Another ongoing concern is vandalism and equipment repair.
Georgia, which puts many of its kiosks at transportation sites, frequently
deals with busted screens, yanked telephone receivers and graffiti. There
is a support staff on hand to repair the kiosks.
What's more, said George Johnson, director of operations for the GeorgiaNet
Kiosk Project, kiosks simply break down, and users are not likely to call
in and report unreadable screens or slow or nonworking machines. "You need
to have a system in place that will let you know if there's a problem,"
For many jurisdictions, the disadvantages completely outweigh any potential
benefits the kiosks might bring. For others, kiosks just don't fit their
needs. Otto Doll, South Dakota CIO, doesn't see any value in putting kiosks
in a low-populated city or rural area and has ruled out ever using them.
"Nobody is going to drive 50 miles into town to talk to a machine,"
he said. Instead, his office is pushing schools with Internet access to
allow adults to use their computers in the evenings. "If people are going
to get in their car and drive to use a kiosk, they might as well drive to
a government office, where the lines aren't what they are in more populated
areas, or at least to a library with Internet access, where they can get
help from somebody."
The Right Fit
Clearly, Fairfax County's Molchany said, kiosks are not for every government,
nor do they meet all needs.
"Kiosks work when they allow a user to do something — to print off forms,
access information, or to pay bills or do other services provided by the
government," he said. "I believe a kiosk that just provides information
that you just go up to and read information off of is not going to work.
You literally have to have an activity that allows people to do some type
of real business that benefits them in some way."
In Fairfax County, people can use kiosks to pay their county taxes or
traffic violations using a credit card, inquire about a housing wait list
status, view schedules and location maps of bus and rail services and, eventually,
open e-mail accounts. The kiosks — located in small private booths — offer
easy-to-understand categories based around "Living, Working and Doing Business
in Fairfax County," and feature a printer and a phone so people can call
government customer service representatives for help.
The kiosk program came about after the county conducted focus groups
and a usability study to figure out what did and did not work.
"We even moved the kiosks around to different places and tracked each
one with usage statistics to see how they fared, which we still do," Mulchany
said. Popular features include a geographic information system that allows
people to map directions to different sites in the county and another that
lets people check the status of library books. "It's like any other IT project.
You have to work at it to make it successful."
Kiosks, observers say, seem to fare better in urban areas than rural
ones. They should be part of a total e-government approach, which includes
a Web site, PCs and Internet access in libraries and schools and, if necessary,
an interactive voice-response system. The screen needs to be easy-to-use
and intuitive. And just like real estate, success often boils down to location,
"You can have the greatest kiosk in the world, but if it's in a dark
alley or a corner next to the boiler room in a building no one goes to,
you are going to have about zero usage on that kiosk," Golden Screens' Gruber
said. "The higher the traffic area, the higher the chances the kiosk is
going to be used, so that means malls, transportation centers and other
natural points of congregation."
New York City, for example, has kiosks located in subway stations, hospitals,
community facilities, government offices and private businesses. Fairfax
County has them in malls, libraries, hospitals and government centers. Georgia
placed its kiosks in welcome centers, the airport, transit stations and
even police stations.
Scott said kiosks in Fairfax County have been moved when usage has been
too low. The kiosks each target more than 5,000 hits per month; if one receives
less than 1,000 hits, it's time for a change, he said.
Surprisingly, kiosks in the right places also draw regular Internet
users. That can have a strong benefit for government agencies that have
a hard time educating end users on available services, according to Gallagher
of the Interagency Kiosk Committee, who also works as deputy Web manager
for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"What we're finding is that 95 percent of the people who use kiosks
are just walking through the mall, see this kiosk, wonder what it is and
start playing around with the touch screen," he said. "Of those, over half
take down information that they plan to use. What that's telling us is that
it really doesn't matter what your computing situation is at home; people
are finding information that they didn't know that we had for them. So it
gives us an opportunity to serve them in a different way."
In fact, Gallagher and his colleagues on the Inter agency Kiosk Committee
are planning some innovative uses of kiosks, including eventually integrating
them with appropriate state and local information. He foresees, for example,
a housing kiosk that includes information from HUD and the departments of
Veterans Affairs and Agriculture, combined with related state and city programs.
"My belief is that someday far off in the future, we're going to have
a kiosk, just like we're going to have a Web site, where it doesn't matter
what level of government you're trying to receive your services or your
information from. You can get it all from one place," Gallagher said.
Getting to that point will take a lot of time and perhaps a lot of lawyers,
but small integration efforts between state and local entities are already
Virginia's Department of Motor Vehicles recently developed a kiosk called
Extra Teller to enable state drivers to renew driver's licenses and vehicle
registrations at any time. Mulchany redesigned Fairfax County's kiosks so
they could offer the DMV services.
"Now, DMV will have 25 more locations for their Extra Tellers in the
county, and that will also work as a draw for our services, since that's
a high-volume trans.action that we think will be quite popular," he said.
Ultimately, kiosks will work best for governments that know their communities.
Sure, kiosks aren't going to reach everyone, and Saturday mall shoppers
will probably concentrate more on new shoes than paying their county tax
bill. But if citizens can find an easier way to interact with government,
then some say the investment is worth it.
"I think as people realize how beneficial [kiosks] can be, interest
will grow," Mulchany said. "But none of it is cookie cutter. You really
have to figure out what works for your community."
Advice for kiosk success
Chris Dixon, digital government coordinator for the National Association
of State Chief Information Officers, and other officials suggest the following
checklist for states and municipalities using kiosks:
* Determine via focus groups, usability studies and robust pilot projects
whether citizens need or want kiosks.
* Work with communities to determine the best locations for kiosks.
* Initially, place kiosks in libraries and government offices to encourage
people to use them and get comfortable with electronic services while someone
is close by to answer questions; then place kiosks in high-traffic areas.
* Think of the kiosk as a part of a larger e-government initiative that
works in conjunction with the Internet, rather than as a stand-alone project.
* Make the screen intuitive, user-friendly and rich in high-demand
services and information that benefit the user.
* Factor maintenance into the cost of ownership. Kiosks are subject
to vandalism and breakdowns, so a system needs to be in place to inform
management of problems, and a support staff must be available to do repairs.
Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reached