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Streetside data kiosks have arrived in Philly, but how useful are they?

The new devices can provide local information, WiFi, and online access without cost.

These new kiosks sprouting up on Market Street are financed by ad revenue.
These new kiosks sprouting up on Market Street are financed by ad revenue.Read moreJason Laughlin

Philadelphia is taking its first dive into public WiFi and data kiosks, which began appearing last week on Market Street.

At first glance, you might not even recognize the new devices for what they are. From a distance, they look like tall digital billboards. The screens that provide information to users are tucked into the narrow side of the device.

Five LinkPHL kiosks, provided by the New York City-based company Intersection, are in place along Market Street near the intersections of 15th, 17th, and 18th Streets. They’re the first of 100 planned for installation in busy areas of Philadelphia, including Old City and University City. It will take at least a year for all to be in place and operating.

The city isn’t being charged for the kiosks, which cost tens of thousands of dollars each, city officials said. Intersection and Philadelphia will split ad revenue equally after accounting for the installation and operating costs, officials said. Intersection is responsible for maintaining the devices.

One asset of the devices, said Angela Dixon, director of planning for the city’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability, is the free access to online resources for people who may not have smartphones.

“The ability for residents and visitors to have a resource available to find city services, make calls, and get directions from our sidewalks is pretty amazing,” she said.

The city also hopes the kiosks will increase transit ridership, which officials say will help reduce car congestion, by providing easy access to SEPTA schedules.

The 4½-foot-tall digital screens will likely grab people’s eyes, but they’re mostly for advertising, with some displays showing weather, community information and events, and instructions on how to use the kiosk’s wi-fi, and aren’t interactive. The ads from the likes of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Peco, which is sponsoring the program, eventually are expected to provide an estimated $18 million for Philadelphia through the 15-year contract.

The advertisements sell for $25 per 1,000 views. A third-party service, Geopath, uses factors like foot traffic and census data to estimate the number of views per kiosk.

The vertical screen that the public can use is small — somewhat larger than a smartphone screen. It’s along the narrow side of the kiosk and has numbered keys beneath it. The WiFi has a range of hundreds of feet around the kiosk, according to Intersection, though that can depend on weather conditions, and is accessible through the Link WiFi app. The home screen offers access to Google Maps, weather information, SEPTA schedules, municipal and emergency information, and events in the city. It also allows a user to make free phone calls.

Beneath the screen’s keys are two USB charging ports, but users need to provide their own cords.

The calling function is easy to use and shows up on the receiving phone as a New York City phone number. The WiFi comes in strong in close proximity to the kiosk. Eventually, a spokesman from Intersection said, enough kiosks will be in place to provide continuous WiFi coverage along city corridors.

The kiosk’s functionality is more limited than the options on its home page would suggest. An attempt to make hotel reservations through the kiosk, for example, led to an endlessly circling wheel on the screen. That’s because these kiosks don’t offer unlimited web access, according to Intersection. For security reasons, access to third-party websites is blocked. While the kiosk lists room bookings as an option, eventually a user will hit the block and will be unable to complete the reservation.

Other functions are hampered by the small screen and a lack of responsive design on the sites being accessed. The Philly 311 and SEPTA schedules, for example, are just links to the agencies' websites. The type is small and touching a link requires a steady finger. Philly 311 allows a user to report quality-of-life issues such as a downed tree or graffiti, but typing information into the right fields can be tricky. Both Philly 311 and SEPTA have apps that would be better suited to the kiosk’s small screens.

Intersection does not allow app access through its kiosk screens for security reasons, the company said, and acknowledged some of the websites the kiosks link to are not optimized for smaller screens. A company spokesman said Intersection would be interested to work with city agencies to make their information easier to use on the smaller screens.

The Google Maps display is, again, small, but worked quickly and would likely be a useful function for out-of-towners without smartphones trying to make their way around the city.

There’s a risk inherent to putting expensive technology onto a public street: The kiosk near 15th and Market already had words scratched into its screen. Intersection will regularly check the devices, a spokesman said, and the kiosks also have an automated system that alerts the company when there is a problem.