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Houston Hopes Kiosks Will Boost Equity, Smart City Appeal

Houston, Texas, has started deploying digital kiosks throughout the city. In addition to offering wayfinding services and municipal resources to residents and visitors, they also serve as Internet connectivity hubs.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner inspecting one of the city’s new digital kiosks at a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (right) inspects one of the city’s new digital kiosks at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Feb. 7.
(Image courtesy City of Houston)
The city of Houston has started the deployment of digitally interactive kiosks, which will offer wayfinding information and act as Wi-Fi hot spots.

In the two years since the COVID-19 pandemic shifted schools and government alike to operate virtually, digital equity has become a top priority for cities. Local governments have taken a number of routes to establish more public Wi-Fi hot spots, deploying them at libraries and even in smart streetlights.

For the city of Houston, the project — led by the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development with support from the Mayor’s Office of Innovation (MOI) — has been part of the mayor’s vision to be a smart city and provide residents with digital amenities, explained Director of Innovation Jesse Bounds.

The city released an RFP in March 2020 and selected IKE Smart City as the vendor a year later, which was followed by the City Council’s May 2021 approval. In early February, the city unveiled its first kiosk.

Notably, each kiosk will act as a free Wi-Fi hot spot that can support connectivity up to 75 feet away. This Internet access is throttled and restricted with time limits, Bounds said.

This is an important component of the project as it will create “pockets of digital connectivity” for city residents, as Bounds explained.

The devices can also be used to communicate with city residents. For example, the city can use the kiosks to push out information on topics like services or COVID-19 testing sites.

The kiosks are also connected to the city’s emergency messaging system, so they can notify residents with public safety information in the case of a severe weather event or public safety crisis.

And residents can also communicate with city leadership through these kiosks, gathering information through surveys on different issues. Bounds said that this feature will help the office use data to inform decision-making.

“With these, it opens the doors to the city for everyone,” said Bounds.

Figuring out where to put the devices involved identifying dense, commercial areas that are highly trafficked by pedestrians. Ten percent of the kiosks will be placed in underserved neighborhoods. Bounds expects a total of 75 kiosks to be installed by May 2024.

One significant way that these kiosks support residents and visitors is by offering access to comprehensive information about local resources. This ranges from basic wayfinding to transit information to real-time availability of bikes in the city’s bike-sharing system.

There is also a jobs board to help jobseekers, a shelter locator with information on availability, and information on services related to addiction recovery and food support. The social service resources are an important part of helping support the population of people in Houston that are experiencing homelessness, Bounds said.

IKE Smart City Development Director Anna Baerman told Government Technology in a written response that in addition to being ADA compliant, the kiosks’ on-screen content is adjustable for people who use wheelchairs. Text can also be resized for users with visual impairments and the kiosks are also multilingual.

The business model for implementing these kiosks is a self-sustaining model supported by media sales, Baerman explained.

“The program will generate a significant revenue stream for the city of Houston with no capital investment required,” she wrote. “When in passive mode, the kiosks will run paid advertisements, but when in interactive mode, our kiosk directory listings do not allow paid placement, thereby driving awareness and sales to local businesses at no cost.”

Government Technology is a sister site to Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.
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