‘Smart City’ kiosk project in North Berkeley sparks debate

An IKE Smart City kiosk stands in downtown Berkeley. Anyone who taps the device’s screen can get information about nearby businesses, events, and public transportation. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/Catchlight

Efforts by an ad agency to install more touchscreen information kiosks that debuted in downtown Berkeley last year are meeting resistance from some residents.

People can use IKE Smart City’s sleek devices to find information about local businesses, community events, public transportation, and other nearby services. City and tourism officials have described them as a tool to promote Berkeley merchants and help visitors get around.

But when someone isn’t using the 8-foot-tall devices, their screens show a rotating selection of images that include advertisements. That prompted council member Sophie Hahn, who represents two popular North Berkeley shopping districts where IKE Smart City wants to install its devices.

“I don’t want any publicity in the public grip,” Hahn said. The main function of kiosks, she claims, is to be “backlit, electronic, 24/7 billboards,” and the fact that they also provide information “doesn’t actually not a public service device”.

IKE Smart City is a venture of advertising company Orange Barrel Media of Columbus, Ohio, which describes itself as “a premier out-of-home media company that has been redefining the ‘billboard’ since 2004.”

IKE Smart City says its kiosks are a way to encourage “the exploration and discovery of a city”. Jessica Burton, a representative for the company, told about 80 attendees at a forum for Berkeley residents on Thursday afternoon that the devices provide a “better digital resource for wayfinding and navigation.”

The Berkeley City Council approved a deal in 2018 that allows IKE Smart City to deploy up to 31 devices. Hahn voted against the deal at the time. The city receives a share of the revenue generated from each kiosk, which in 2018 was estimated at $27,000 per device per year, or about $830,000 per year if the company installed all 31.

An IKE Smart City kiosk on Telegraph Avenue displays an advertisement for City National Bank. Credit: Nico Savidge, Berkeleyside

IKE’s first Berkeley device went live in December, and eight more have been installed since then — five downtown, three along Telegraph Avenue and one in South Berkeley’s Lorin District. The kiosks also offer free Wi-Fi and have an emergency button that connects to 911.

The company now wants to install 17 more devices in several other business districts around Berkeley starting next year, including Gilman Street, Fourth Street, North Shattuck and Solano Avenue.

“We really want to use these kiosks to welcome visitors,” Jeffrey Church of Visit Berkeley, the city’s tourism and marketing office, told forum attendees Thursday afternoon.

The virtual forum was supposed to collect information on where the devices could be placed in the North Shattuck neighborhood; IKE and the city plan to install two in the shopping district, at the intersections of Shattuck with Cedar and Vine streets.

But attendees had none of that – they voiced their complete opposition to kiosks, calling the devices an eyesore that cluttered the sidewalks while providing the kind of information people can already get more easily on their cellphones. .

Several also raised concerns about what data the devices could access from people using the kiosk or those walking around.

Burton, the IKE Smart City representative, said the company collects anonymous data from its kiosks about the content people use it to find, and also acknowledged that the device’s Wi-Fi service records the “ping” of nearby cell phones even if their owners do not. use the device. Clayton Collett, the company’s senior director of development, said in an email to Berkeleyside that such a ping was comparable to how public Wi-Fi networks in coffee shops or airports recognize nearby devices, and stated that IKE kiosks do not retain this data.

“We don’t sell data, we don’t store data,” Burton said, “we don’t collect personally identifiable information.”

Berkeley’s rules for devices include stricter privacy standards than other cities, including a provision that devices do not include cameras, which they typically have. Hahn, who has pushed for tougher standards from Berkeley, said she remains concerned about how the company might use data collected by its kiosks.

IKE Smart City is also working to install its devices in Oakland, which has sparked similar debates about data and privacy.

City Council will have the final say on the location of the next set of kiosks, a decision expected this fall. Hahn said she would advocate to keep them completely out of the North Shattuck and Solano shopping districts.

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