With over 62% of Americans now living in urban centers, it’s becoming more important to improve life in cities and get citizens involved in helping to shape the future of where they live. One of the most powerful tools available to local governments is digital signage – it can be located anywhere and everywhere people go, and vast amount of information can be shared using methods people are already familiar with and comfortable using. Digital signage can help increase citizen engagement.
A recent report by Vision looked at 3600 local government agencies and found some surprising statistics. 86% of respondents said citizen engagement was an area that is already having, or will have, an impact on local government by the end of this year, yet only 5% of local government leaders ranked themselves as “outstanding” in getting people engaged.
Over the past three years, there’s been a shift in engagement focus from internal government staff to the citizens and residents themselves. Improving engagement was cited as the top area for planned expansion and investment among respondents, and local leaders are realizing that it’s up to them to provide clear and consistent information across all platforms. The push for providing accessible and transparent digital services is on.
There’s a lot of talk these days about the “smart city” – an information infrastructure that permeates all levels of an urban locale that interacts with both people and other information systems. In every city today we can see technology – wireless networks, surveillance cameras, smart cards, location-based services, and quasi-intelligent systems, as well as ways for people to interact directly with their digital environment though smartphones and other portable devices, interactive touchscreens and kiosks, and social media websites. As a report by First Monday says, “…the city has become a hybrid of the physical and the digital.”
Private corporations are even getting in one the act – they see huge growth opportunities as cities become smarter and more reliant on digital technologies. This has far-reaching consequences, as citizens have an increasing sense of ownership in their environments and expect, even demand, access and input. Successful digital signage deployments offer a “consumer-like experience” to their audiences, allowing them freedom to choose how and what information they select and interact with. In the midst of the urban narrative of cities becoming smart cities, they are also becoming social cities.
The city is as an information-generating system, with massive amounts of data being accumulated every time a person interacts with a government office or private business. Apps proliferate by the dozens every month, and there’s a constant sense of experimentation and do-it-yourself entrepreneurship in what some are calling the “digital commons”. More physical locations are being networked – not just providing wifi access, but actually gathering vital information on who uses public spaces and services, and how they use them. This creates a feedback loop that informs urban planning discussions and plans.
The vast majority of people are at least fairly proficient with digital technologies and interfaces, but any comprehensive plan needs to accommodate all levels of skill and interest. Digital signage is immensely flexible, and can be scaled according to the shifting needs of a populace. Existing services of all types need to be digitized – one term that is gaining notice is “digital by default”. People already use their smartphones and tablets to access information constantly (and the younger someone is, the more reliant on digital technologies they are), so the path to engaging them is clearly a digital one.
Engaged citizens are collaborative, helping community leaders co-create solutions, and are a source of innovation. Leaders can see measurable progress, making data-enabled decisions that inform actionable strategies. Engagement is also a goal of government staff – employees have more autonomy because they have a flexible, digital framework that supports them, have more mastery over their tasks and feel a greater sense of purpose in their jobs (which leads to higher productivity, lower absenteeism and employee turnover).
Yet many people are not engaged. In 2015, The National Research Center found that citizen engagement was extremely low throughout the United States. What can local governments do to get people interested and involved? People usually don’t get involved because they don’t know about initiatives and information portals, don’t see any way to actively participate, or don’t have the time to participate.
Strategically placed digital signage screens can certainly help spread the word about what’s happening and what’s on offer. Many cities place displays in public areas, along roadsides, at busy transportation hubs (like train stations and airports), and even streets with heavy pedestrian traffic. A quick message that intrigues can act as a teaser, and the inclusion of a short URL or QR code can take people right out to a dedicated webpage for more detailed information. These messages can be purely informative – X amount of money has been allocated to improving road traffic in the area, or pictures of plans for a new local park – or they can encourage people to become active in their community:
- Clubs or organizations that focus on community service
- Volunteer fairs
- Back to school supply drives
- Blood drives
- Holiday drives like Thanksgiving food drives or Toys for Tots
- Special days or weeks dedicated to being active in the community, such as a Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week
- Community gardens where members grow food together and share the harvests and profits, if the food is sold
- Community beautification programs, such as painting old buildings, park clean-ups, public art initiatives, etc.
The best thing to do is to ask people – what would they actually be willing to spend some of their time doing? Interactivity is a key element, and not just on a website. Interactive touchscreens and kiosks can be placed in high-traffic areas to get immediate feedback on what interests the public, as well as providing large amounts of information of all kinds that can be quickly and easily accessed. Tie relevant data to databases, and have the information update automatically, so people always have the most recent information possible. Meetings and community events can be recorded for people to watch at their leisure if they couldn’t make it to the actual event, accessible via webpages or kiosks.
And visitors to the city can also get useful information using interactive kiosks – wayfinding maps, bus schedules, call a taxi, find an available hotel room, make a restaurant reservation, see the local sites. Integrating touchscreens with a free downloadable citywide app means that people can always have whatever they want or need with them at all times.
Digital signage solutions are also eco-friendly, which more and more US citizens say is a priority to them. A comprehensive digital signage network can also serve as an alert system, warning of severe weather or security threats.
None of this needs to be terribly expensive. Digital signage solutions can start small and then scale up as more people become accustomed to getting information this way. They will even begin to expect it, much as they now expect everything to be available on the web.
With a comprehensive well-thought-out plan, a municipality of any size can reach everyone and get them interested and involved in the place they live. Technology can bring back to cities the sense of membership and ownership that used to be found only in small towns and villages.