Columbus, Ohio-based IKE Smart City has been approved to install up to 31 interactive, digital kiosks in Berkeley’s commercial districts. The company has already deployed them in several cities across the country, including in Baltimore, Maryland, pictured. Photo: IKE Smart City

Berkeley’s City Council has approved a plan to install up to 31 advertising-supported “smart kiosks” or IKEs — short for Interactive Kiosk Experience — on public sidewalks throughout the city’s shopping districts.

The devices will be installed by Columbus, Ohio-based IKE Smart City, and will offer interactive maps, transit information, calendars of events, business listings, emergency services, and other Berkeley-specific information. They will also provide public high-speed WiFi. All of the services are supported by advertising and the city will pay nothing to install or maintain the kiosks.  

In fact, if all 31 are deployed, Berkeley could make almost $830,000 a year in advertising revenue (roughly $27,000 per kiosk per year), according to estimates based on the performance of the company’s kiosks in other cities. Berkeley would be entitled to 10% of gross advertising revenue in the first two years of the program, and 25% for the rest of the contract. (The contract is for 15 years with an option to extend.) However, there is no revenue guarantee, according to the city’s economic development manager, Jordan Klein.

A first phase of up to 15 kiosks is slated for the downtown Berkeley, Telegraph and Lorin commercial districts. After six months, another 16 may be installed in other shopping areas including Solano Avenue, North Shattuck and the Elmwood, depending on public support and feedback. The kiosks are not planned for any residential areas or near K-12 schools.

“It’s a sad day that the council doesn’t recognize what a blight it [will be] on the environment.”
— Denny Abrams

Property owners on Fourth Street have already told the city that they don’t want the IKEs. Denny Abrams, a major Fourth Street landlord who said other owners in the district agree with him, fears the kiosks will “pollute the public space” of Berkeley with their bright screens and flashy ads.

“It’s a sad day that the council doesn’t recognize what a blight it [will be] on the environment,” he said of the kiosks. “[The city] controls every other form of advertising in public space but here they aren’t going to control it; why not? What’s the pay off? They’re never going to get the funds promised.”

Next steps will include meetings with representatives from merchant associations and business improvement districts, relevant city staff, planners and engineers, representatives from IKE Smart City, and council members, according to Visit Berkeley CEO Barbara Hillman, the nonprofit that promotes Berkeley tourism and that brought the project to the city. After that, there will be two public hearings in each district and then a City Council vote for each proposed sidewalk location before any construction begins.

As yet, the public hearings have not been scheduled and it is unclear how long the process will take before the devices are available, although Chris Greene, a managing director for IKE Smart City who has given testimony before the City Council, said he hopes to break ground on the first phase in the first half of next year.

Proposed benefits of kiosks

Outgoing Councilman Kriss Worthington enthusiastically supports the kiosks for his district, which covers the UC Berkeley campus and the Telegraph commercial district. He said the devices would bring greater publicity to the city’s many cultural offerings and local businesses.

“I think this is one more tool to help arts and culture in Berkeley, that’s what makes me passionately excited about them,” he said, pointing out that the kiosks will be an easy and obvious place for people to go to find out what’s going on. “This [is] a place where you can get practical information, but also what are the arts, cultural things, or businesses nearby.”

The IKEs will support multiple languages for visitors from around the world and are compliant with the federal American with Disabilities Act. Although Visit Berkeley would be in charge of coordinating what content is displayed and updated on the the kiosks, IKE Smart City is responsible for updating the hardware and software of the machines to keep them from becoming obsolete, according to Greene.

The large devices are available in either six- or eight-foot-tall designs, depending on the density and scale of the districts they are installed in. They are also equipped with two 65-inch touch-screens on either side of the device that display rotating ads when not in use. During their passive mode, the devices will display eight separate ads that will include two reserved specifically for Berkeley-focused content and events. Local businesses will be able to buy any of the remaining six slots at a 50% discount. When someone is interacting with the device, ads will continue to display but will take up no more than a third of the screen. Ads selling tobacco, alcohol, marijuana and other specified products will not be allowed, although local breweries and wineries will be able to advertise.

IKE Smart City has installed its kiosks in Denver and San Antonio, is expanding into Baltimore and Columbus, and is in negotiations with eight other U.S. cities, including Oakland, according to company representative Greene. 

“Our goal is that [visitors] will stay here longer and patronize our merchants, or maybe come back another weekend.”
— Barbara Hillman

Hillman, who says she’s been looking for kiosks such as these for almost 20 years, thinks they will offer a huge benefit for local businesses, which don’t have budgets to market themselves.

“Our goal is that [visitors] will stay here longer and patronize our merchants, or maybe come back another weekend,” she said.

Although there have been low-tech static maps and basic Berkeley information provided near the downtown BART station for years, previous plans to provide digital kiosks around the city have failed due to their high cost. “There’s no way we would have [them] if we had to pay for them,” Hillman said. “There’s nobody who can offer what IKE is offering without advertising or without the city having to buy it.”

Privacy and surveillance concerns

During public comment at recent City Council meetings where the smart kiosks were discussed, several members of the public expressed their concerns about privacy issues. The machines are equipped with cameras and sensors that can monitor the number of people walking past and take photos via photo booth-type apps. The council edited the agreement with IKE Smart Cities to turn off the cameras but decided to keep the people counting feature. Company representative Greene testified to the City Council that no personal data would be collected from the public and any information collected on kiosk users will be anonymous.

While Berkeley is especially sensitive to such issues, other cities are not, according to Greene.

“There are cities that believe that the capability to enhance law enforcement and emergency services to have more visibility is a good thing and that’s what they want and there are cities that feel that is a violation of privacy and that is not what they want,” he said. “The beauty of IKE is we leave that decision [to collect data] entirely up to the city. It’s not part of our business model, it’s not what we need, it’s simply an add-on capability if the city desires it.”

One city that voted against installing these kiosks was Raleigh, North Carolina. In early October, its City Council voted down a proposal to allow IKE Smart City to install the devices there. A central concern was how brightly lit, changing digital ads in right-of-ways would add to light pollution and open the door to other companies wanting to display their own electronic advertising, according to local reporter Anna Johnson of the Raleigh News and Observer. Another worry was that an emergency 911 feature would over-tax the local police department.

Although Berkeley’s City Council voted to amend existing encroachment and signage rules to allow IKEs, not all council members were in agreement. Councilwoman Sophie Hahn was the sole no vote (Councilwoman Cheryl Davila abstained).

“Our city leaders in the past felt that advertising like this in the public right-of-way was generally a bad idea,” Hahn said in an email to Berkeleyside,  referring to electric and moving ads that are not allowed by city codes. “These exceptions/changes have been put forward without making it clear to the Council that what is being asked for is a major change of policy.”

Hahn also disagreed with the way the proposal was brought to the city council. Rather than through a normal bidding process where multiple companies would offer proposals, Visit Berkeley brought the one proposal from IKE Smart City to the Council and Berkeley signed a single-bid franchise agreement with the company.

This story was updated after publication with clarifications about the number and cost of advertisements on the IKEs and that the kiosks will in fact be allowed to use sensors to count the number of people walking by.

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Stuart Luman is a freelance writer based in Berkeley. He has previously been an editor at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a fact checker at Wired Magazine, and a high school English teacher in East...