Civic Engagement on Public Displays

In collaboration with City of Oulu

In collaboration with City of Oulu

In spite of all their potential, public displays are all too often used merely to broadcast advertising. They can be used for so much more. Situated in the right contexts, and loaded with the right software and services, public displays have the potential to radically increase citizen knowledge and public engagement.

I have helped to explore the extent to which public displays can be used for the public good. With our team we have also organized international workshops on human interfaces in the city, and implemented a vast amount of different types of services to explore how urban technologies can be used to foster civic participation.

Ubinion: Public Displays and Youth Empowerment

Ubinion (also a part of our portfolio of Social Networking Services on Public Displays) is a civic engagement service for public displays. Ubinion was initially deployed in several spaces in Oulu, Finland to help the city’s Youth Affairs Department (YAD) better communicate and engage with the local youth.

Ubinion allowed teenagers to give personalized feedback directly to the YAD using public displays. This feedback was then publicized on Twitter and Facebook, where YAD officials were ready to interact with youth and address their concerns. The process of giving feedback was made “playful” by encouraging users take photos with the webcam embedded in the frame of the public displays, and then typing a caption to the resulting photo. We encouraged users to write their captions as either a “thought bubble” or a “protest sign.”

The field studies taught us that while playfulness as a design choice is a great way to elicit social feedback from youth, it can also be problematic. The feedback received through Ubinion was not as serious as we hoped, largely because users commented and gave feedback on much broader topics than those predicted by the YAD. We did discover, however, that users enjoyed simply playing with the service as they were killing time.

Despite these setbacks, Ubinion deployments were a hugely successful PR tool, and the YAD was very pleased with the resulting increase in youth interaction with their services. Because young people are often among the first to adopt new communication tools and techniques, the flexibility for “play” programmed into these displays worked to their advantage more than we expected.

Ubinion field trials in action!

Ubinion field trials in action! (click for a larger version)

Rotuaari Renovation: Feedback from the Heart of the City

Between 2011 and 2013, Rotuaari, the main walking street in Oulu, underwent a major renovation project. In tandem with the renovation, we were commissioned to deploy a series of public displays to encourage civic feedback and to help disseminate information about the renovations.

Rotuaari Renovation

Left: concept image of the new Rotuaari, middle: one of our public displays installed at the area, right: the renovation disturbing everyday lives at the area

The core application of this installation scenario was to give passers-by the opportunity to record feedback when still on-site, with the understanding that if people cannot give feedback right away, they most likely won’t give it at all. We installed the feedback service on several screensnear the are under renovation, and collected feedback for a period of six months. We developed the “Rotuaari Renovation” application in collaboration with the local Technical Centre (TC). At the time, this was their first attempt to build digital feedback channels directly into the city’s urban environment, rather than having it be limited to the traditional channel of telephones, paper forms, and their website.

Over the course of this project, we experimented with a number of different feedback mechanisms (SMS, e-mail, direct input with on-screen keyboard, twitter, and on-screen polling) in order to discover what channels citizens preferred to use to interact. Consequently, over the course of this installation, we altered the application’s design based on our findings.

Summary of lessons learned in the Rotuaari Renovation deployment.

Summary of lessons learned in the Rotuaari Renovation deployment.

Even using the medium of public displays, we learned that it can sometimes be quite difficult to encourage civic participation. In the short term, many users simply used the displays to record jokes or to take pictures. However, in the long term, we found that the displays drastically improved the city’s ability to engage in PR, and they also seem to have fostered a sense of trust between the city and its citizens.

Between these two projects, we learned that it is sometimes difficult to assess the efficacy of multipurpose display environments. This makes them hard to compare, because not only is each purpose-built setup different from the others, the availability of other services on the displays, as well as user familiarity with displays in general, makes subsequent use cases unique.

Public displays are a technology with significant potential to improve civic engagement. Not only are they viable 24/7, they also provide us with the opportunity to test out new software and interface environments to improve them. Although neither of these projects worked quite as we expected them to, they still worked. I am confident that with the right balance between interactivity and civic consultation in urban deployments, success can be found on this front.

Related publications

Hosio S, Goncalves J, Kostakos V, Cheverst K & Rogers Y. (2013)
Human interfaces for civic and urban engagement: HiCUE ’13.
Proc. The international conference on Pervasive and ubiquitous computing (UbiComp) adjunct publication, Zürich, Switzerland, 2013

Hosio S, Vassilis K, Kukka H, Jurmu M, Riekki J & Ojala T. (2012)
From School Food to Skate Parks in a few Clicks: Using Public Displays to Bootstrap Civic Engagement of the Young
Proc. 10th International Conference on Pervasive Computing (Pervasive), Newcastle, UK 2012

Hosio S, Goncalves J, Kostakos V & Riekki, J. (2014)
Exploring Civic Engagement on Public Displays
In: Reddick, Christopher, G., Saaed, S. (eds.) Public Administration and Information Technology: User-Centric Technology Design for Nonprofit and Civic Engagements, Springer, 2014

Hosio S, Goncalves J, Kostakos V & Riekki J. (2015)
Crowdsourcing Public Opinion using Urban Pervasive Technologies: Lessons from Real-Life Experiments in Oulu
Policy & Internet, online first