An advertising firm’s effort to install more of the touch-screen information kiosks that made their debut in downtown Berkeley last year is running into resistance from some residents.
People can use the sleek devices from IKE Smart City 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’s merchants and help visitors get around.
But when someone isn’t using the 8-foot-tall devices, their screens display a rotating selection of images that include advertisements. That has prompted pushback from Councilmember Sophie Hahn, who represents two popular North Berkeley shopping districts where IKE Smart City wants to install its devices.
“I don’t want advertising in the public right of way,” Hahn said. The primary function of the kiosks, she contends, is to be “backlit, electronic, 24/7 advertising billboards,” and the fact that they also provide information “doesn’t make them into a public service device.”
IKE Smart City is a venture of the Columbus, Ohio, advertising firm Orange Barrel Media, which describes itself as “a leading out-of-home media company that has been redefining the ‘billboard’ since 2004.”
IKE Smart City says its kiosks are a way to encourage “exploration and discovery of a city.” Jessica Burton, a representative for the company, told about 80 attendees at a forum for Berkeley residents Thursday afternoon that the devices offer a “best-in-class digital wayfinding and navigation resource.”
The Berkeley City Council approved an agreement in 2018 that allows IKE Smart City to deploy up to 31 of the devices. Hahn voted against the deal at the time. The city receives a share of the revenue generated from each kiosk, which was estimated in 2018 at $27,000 per device per year, or about $830,000 annually if the firm installed all 31.
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 provide free Wi-Fi and have an emergency button that connects to 911.
The company now wants to install another 17 devices in several other business districts around Berkeley starting next year, including on Gilman Street, Fourth Street, North Shattuck and Solano Avenue.
“We really just want to utilize these kiosks to welcome visitors,” Jeffrey Church of Visit Berkeley, the city’s tourism and marketing bureau, told attendees at Thursday afternoon’s forum.
The virtual forum was meant to take input on where in the North Shattuck neighborhood the devices could be placed? IKE and the city are considering putting two in the shopping district, at Shattuck’s intersections with Cedar and Vine streets.
But attendees were having none of it — they expressed their opposition to the kiosks altogether, calling the devices eyesores that would clutter 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 who happen to be walking by.
Burton, the IKE Smart City representative, said the company collects anonymized data from its kiosks about the content people use it to find, and also acknowledged the device’s Wi-Fi service registers the “ping” of nearby cellphones even if their owners don’t use the device. Clayton Collett, the company’s senior development director, said in an email to Berkeleyside that such a ping was comparable to how public Wi-Fi networks at coffee shops or airports recognize devices in their vicinity, and said IKE kiosks do not retain that data.
“We don’t sell data, we don’t store data,” Burton said, “we don’t collect personally identifiable information.”
Berkeley’s rules for the devices include more stringent privacy standards than those in other cities, including a provision that the devices do not include cameras, which they typically have. Hahn, who lobbied for Berkeley’s tighter standards, said she remains concerned about how the company could use the data its kiosks collect.
IKE Smart City is also working to install its devices in Oakland, which has sparked similar debates over data and privacy.
The City Council will get the final say on where the next round of kiosks is placed, a decision that is expected sometime this fall. Hahn said she will advocate for keeping them out of the North Shattuck and Solano shopping districts altogether.