The city is developing a technology-focused program to help people get around town.
On Aug. 9, the city installed an interactive wayfinding kiosk near the intersection of Main Street and Lemon Avenue, realizing a vision downtown stakeholders have been pursuing for at least seven years.
It was, admittedly, a scaled-down version of that vision. The kiosk was in place for a week, a demonstration to allow residents to test and evaluate the system. The LCD touch screens displayed downtown maps and listings of shops and restaurants, but there wasn’t actually any information about local businesses loaded into the machine.
Even though it was just a demo, it did represent progress on a project the city has been undertaking since 2009. The city has more than $313,000 allocated for wayfinding improvements, hoping to help residents and visitors get around Sarasota.
Staff originally planned a series of signs that would be installed throughout the city. Over time, though, the thinking evolved to focus on technology-driven solutions. In 2016, the City Commission directed staff to spend that money in three areas: static signs posted at entrances to the city, interactive electronic kiosks and the development of a phone app.
Led by the Information Technology department, staff located a vendor for a kiosk and began developing a system it thought could help people trying to navigate the city. The machines used in the demo cost $50,000 each, which includes five years of maintenance and service.
Although there has been progress made on the wayfinding front, there are still questions staff must address. Public Works Director Doug Jeffcoat said the city will use the feedback residents provided as it determines what information might ultimately be included in the kiosks, if officials decide to permanently install them. If the project continues to move forward, staff also needs to decide the quantity and location of the kiosks.
In June, members of the Downtown Improvement District offered some criticism of the city’s wayfinding strategy. They questioned whether interactive kiosks and an app would be useful tools considering the ubiquity of smartphones.
“When we first started this … it was all new and exciting,” DID board member Eileen Hampshire said about the kiosk concept. “It’s old hat now. Everybody has a phone. Are we going to invest our money in stuff people already have?”
Jeffcoat said city staff had been having similar conversations as it vetted plans for the kiosks. He expressed a belief the kiosks could still be a useful tool — maintaining the static nature of the signs the city originally planned while offering more flexibility. On the model unit, images featured the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, St. Armands Circle, the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex and more. Jeffcoat said the kiosks would be able to showcase other segments of the city.
He said the city remains open to adjusting its plans as it determines the best way to proceed.
Regarding the app, he acknowledged the possibility users wouldn’t see the need to use a city-branded product over other options available on their phones. As a result, he said staff had to be focused on finding a specific purpose for the app if it was going to get developed.
“Everyone has an app nowadays,” Jeffcoat said. “What do we need? Do we still see a need for an app, and if we do, what does it do?”
After continued internal conversations among staff, Jeffcoat hopes to discuss the next steps for wayfinding with the commission before the end of the year.
In June, the DID expressed interest in installing a series of static signs within the district’s boundaries, with board members suggesting it would be a more effective option than kiosks. Since then, city staff has told the group that the existing infrastructure would make it difficult to install new sign poles.
As a result, the group is set to hear a presentation about the interactive kiosks at a Sept. 4 meeting. DID Operations Manager John Moran said he thought the board may now be more receptive to investing funds into the project with the city. Before that happens, he said, the DID would first need to see a compelling pitch in favor of the kiosks.
“I detect there’s still some unsureness on the part of board members on this,” Moran said. “I think they want to be wowed on Sept. 4.”
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