An IKE Smart City kiosk in Miami, where users can interact with a variety of touchscreen apps to learn about nearby businesses or events in the city, get directions, and more. (IKE Smart City Photo)

A proposal to bring 30 interactive digital kiosks to downtown Seattle — in the hopes of enhancing public safety, wayfinding, Wi-Fi access, community engagement and more — spotlighted the potential of the devices while raising a number of questions and concerns during a Thursday meeting of the Seattle Design Commission.

Will the kiosks targeting residents and tourists in the core of the city, and potentially in outer neighborhoods, provide a meaningful benefit to the public? Or will the large screens planted alongside sidewalks and roadways further clutter Seattle’s landscape with bright light and excessive advertising?

The kiosks, called IKE Smart City, are a product of Columbus, Ohio-based advertising company Orange Barrel Media, which is partnering with the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) to add Seattle to its list of clients. There are currently 18 U.S. cities where the digital kiosk program has been implemented, and the hope among stakeholders is to bring the devices to Seattle in time for the FIFA World Cup in 2026.

There is no cost to the City of Seattle for the installation or upkeep of the kiosks, which could generate, on average, $1.1 million per year via advertising revenue that would go to DSA. The organization says it would invest that money back into downtown. The City would also share in any additional revenue that exceeds an agreed-upon threshold.

DSA and its partners would also receive rights to a portion of the content on the kiosks.

Representatives from Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, pubic safety agencies, Orange Barrel Media, DSA and others presented arguments Thursday for how the kiosks would be a welcome addition to Seattle streets.

Andrew Myerberg, chief innovation officer for the City of Seattle, said that Mayor Harrell strongly supports the proposal, which is in line with his Downtown Activation Plan to reinvigorate the city post-pandemic.

“One of the broadest [public benefits] is the benefit to public safety and to our response and engagement with the community around emergencies,” Myerberg said.

Myerberg was joined by representatives from the Seattle Police Department, Seattle Fire Department and the Seattle CARE Department — home to Seattle’s 911 communications center and the CARE Community Crisis Responder Team.

Along with the ability to call 911 from a kiosk, agencies like SPD and SFD envision using them to broadcast warnings in the event of an emergency or to issue public safety instructions.

“I have seen cities all around this country avail themselves of the very best technology available to keep communities not only safe but to keep them connected to one another, to connect to services,” CARE Acting Chief Amy Smith said, while referencing Seattle’s rise in violent crime rates and overdose deaths. “When we can take some steps like the IKE kiosks to promote safety and connection, and especially to empower people who might not generally engage with city officials, we should do it.”

The kiosks work like giant public touch screens that are intended to extend digital equity to people who might not have a smartphone or to engage tourists who might not know what to look for on their phones in a new city. Each IKE (interactive kiosk experience) is loaded with apps that connect people to various discovery, mobility, and social equity options in the city, whether it’s a nearby restaurant, transit option, walking directions, entertainment or sporting event, job board or homeless shelter.

The goal is to have the kiosks share a look and design aesthetic with Seamless Seattle, the Department of Transportation’s current pedestrian wayfinding program.

DSA President and CEO Jon Scholes called the potential IKE partnership, with its 15-year renewable permit, a “heck of a deal” for the City and DSA.

The kiosks would be located in the downtown Metropolitan Improvement District, with the potential to expand to Business Improvement Areas, such as SoDO, Ballard, the University District and elsewhere. What’s not included initially is the four tourist-rich areas of Pike Place Market, Pioneer Square, Chinatown-International District, and the waterfront.

“The pilot program could be expanded to serve those districts,” Scholes said, adding that the initial 30 will be located in areas with high pedestrian traffic and transit nodes where people arriving downtown can be directed to businesses, attractions and events in those specific neighborhoods.

IKE Smart City says that kiosks planned for Seattle will not include security cameras. (IKE Smart City Photo)

A similar plan to bring kiosks to Seattle stalled in 2018, when City officials, including Mayor Jenny Durkan, cited privacy concerns during negotiations with Intersection, another company that runs digital ads on public transit and operates free Wi-Fi information kiosks.

Six years later, security and privacy concerns were again raised, in an April report in The Stranger about IKE and its data privacy policies, including whether security cameras would be capturing footage of unwitting passers-by.

In a privacy and data FAQ provided by DSA to GeekWire this week, IKE addressed questions related to the program envisioned for Seattle. Among the concerns:

  • Does IKE collect and sell user data? IKE says it does not collect or sell personally identifiable information or any other data.
  • Is any other data collected by IKE? IKE says it collects usage analytics data only. It records which applications are opened and for how long, and an anonymous tally is kept of user visits to each kiosk.
  • Will the Seattle kiosks include cameras? The kiosks may include a selfie camera as part of a “Photo Booth” application only. The feature requires users to manually activate the camera functionality, which captures photos only and is not active unless the functionality is engaged by a user. Once taken, IKE says photos are not stored on the kiosk or retained by IKE.

Despite language about kiosk cameras in its online privacy policy, IKE says that its Seattle kiosks will not be equipped with security cameras, the way kiosks have been in some cities, where they’re used “in partnership with local authorities to resolve incidents adjacent to the kiosk.”

“Our Seattle proposal does not include this functionality,” IKE says in the FAQ. “And we expect that the authorizing legislation would prohibit these cameras from later being installed absent clear direction from the City Council to do so in compliance with local Seattle privacy laws.”

An advertisement displayed on an IKE Smart City kiosk in Berkeley, Calif. (IKE Smart City Photo)

Beyond concerns about data privacy, how the public safety functions would actually work, or which neighborhoods would get kiosks, Design Committee members touched on a variety of other issues.

While the ability to display and promote public art and artists is highly touted by IKE and DSA, some on the committee and members of the public wondered just how much screen time would be dedicated to art and other Seattle-focused services and how much would just be ads for banks or airlines or soft drinks. And whether the bright screens would add to light pollution and potentially distract drivers and cyclists.

Ellen Sollod, a former vice chair of the Seattle Design Commission, said during public comment that one of the things she’s concerned about is not just the visual clutter of the kiosks in the landscape, but the visual clutter from the messaging in the landscape. She cited video billboards in Seattle Center that predominantly show ads.

“I’m very concerned about the continuing homogenization of Seattle,” Sollod said. “And when I see that this is a program and a design that has been used in many cities all over the country, it’s further homogenization of our landscape … for a city that used to have a very strong visual sense.”

Orange Barrell Media sells dramatic advertising displays to companies like Amazon, where a giant Prime Video billboard is lit up over the Sunset Strip in Hollywood.

DSA’s Scholes told GeekWire that with 30 kiosks spread across an area of approximately 1,200 city block faces, clutter will not be a substantial issue.

Design Commission member Brian Markham said he was “very confused” about the public benefit of the kiosks.

“The fact that the number one app is a selfie picture app, to me that doesn’t sound like that’s very useful,” Markham said, referencing IKE’s Photo Booth. “I need a little bit more in order to not just fine tune my response but to dramatically step from a no to a yes.”

The timeline for the proposal includes another Design Committee meeting this summer before the issue is taken to the City Council for further consideration.

A website providing more details about the proposed project includes a survey seeking public input.

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