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

fresh look.

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

Kiosk Committee.

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

corner.

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

use kiosks.

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

telephone costs.

"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,"

he said.

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,

location, 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

happening.

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

at hbhayes@cfw.com.

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