In the last decade, cities have invested millions in public information displays. That screen at the bus-stop now tells you when the 47 is going to arrive. And several places are now developing sophisticated way-finding signage and "ambient data" systems.
But is there a better way to get urban intelligence to users?
Several European cities are showing that bulky infrastructure may not be necessary at all. Instead of displays, they are embedding "smart tags" in bus station walls, tourist landmarks, and airport arrivals lounges, allowing citizens to access information simply by waving their phones close-by.
Eight French cities, and three in Spain, are now using Near Field Communication (NFC) technology developed by Connecthings, a Paris-based company. For example, Strasbourg has installed about 1,500 tags so far.
"If the tag is at the bus-stop, it will tell you when the next service is coming, and the different lines," says business development director Alban d’Halluin. "If it’s at a touristic place, you will learn about when a building is open, and where the nearest bus is." NFC is simply a short-range wireless link that transfers data from one device to another.
Aside from de-cluttering streets, the smart tags are much cheaper than displays, and more numerous. The tags cost less than $10, while the screens are priced at more than $1,000 each, according to d’Halluin.
And, best of all, they can provide information that’s appropriate to users. "When you have a display at a bus station, everyone is watching the same screen, so you can only show information that is relevant to everyone. It’s going to mention an incident on a specific line, or something like that," he says. "But if people are on their mobile, you can adapt the information for them. The landing page is the same. On the next click, the game changes completely."
In Strasbourg, users can see if a bus is going to be 20 minutes late, and whether there’s a bike-share service nearby. The StrasPlus system shows how many bikes are available at that spot, and how long it will take to get there. "You couldn’t do that on a screen that is shared by everyone, because it’s too much information," D’Halluin says.
Connecthings’s site gets 100,000 pageviews a month at the moment, though he stresses the point isn’t to drive traffic to the conventional web page, but to provide location-specific information. The company’s service in Nice, for example, gives users a map of defibrillators in an area, so that residents can quickly find a machine in an emergency. Another installation at this year’s Mobile World Congress, in Barcelona, helped visitors navigate the airport, exhibition hall, and city.
NFC technology isn’t completely standard yet. While an estimated 300 million NFC-enabled devices will ship this year, Apple, in its stand-apart way, has yet to embrace the technology. IPhone users therefore have to use QR codes on the tags instead, which isn’t quite as friction-free.
Still, either method has to be better than a few expensive screens showing generic advice. It stands to reason that cities should invest in information services that citizens can access for themselves. After all, why give them a screen when they already have one?