Creating Technology for Social Change

Digital Signage on the Cheap in Union Sq

We are excited to be pilot testing a neighborhood installation of our Lost In Boston Realtime digital signage system with partners locally in Union Square, Somerville! Our main goal with these signs is to increase awareness of and engagement in community services by showcasing transit data and a community calendar on scrolling led signs located in local businesses. We’ve worked with our wonderful community partners to install three signs in local Union Square businesses, and have designed an assessment plan for the summer to measure their impact.


Community organizations consistently tell us that awareness and participation are central to their work. I’ve been working with Rick Borovoy, Regan St. Pierre, and Susan Liang here to develop the technology and strategy to help address this. Standard public signage infrastructure doesn’t really address this, and flyers/newspapers only cover a certain portion of the population or a subsection of the services a vibrant community has offer. Installing networked, digital signage in local business near bus stops presents us with an opportunity to share up-to-date information during a person’s down time (waiting for the bus). Using these signs to get people engaged in community events furthers our shared goals of building awareness of a neighborhood as a hot destination, and helping the “spillover” effect where people attending local public events spend more dollars at local businesses (1).


After discussions with a number of excited communities, and two early installations to test the technology, we’re excited to partner with Somerville Union Square community to really test this stuff out! Somerville is a vibrant, multicultural town just outside of Boston (full disclosure: I’m a proud resident). In addition to anecdotal evidence, previously run community programs have identified community event and resource information as a problem to address (2). We’ve partnered with the great folks at Somerville Arts Council, Union Square Main Streets, and the Somerville Scout to bring this pilot test to life. They introduced us to engaged business owners, and together we realized the Scout had the perfect Somerville community calendar already in place. Union Square is not on the subway system, but is a bus hub with a fairly diverse population – culturally, economically, and generationally.


Since this is a pilot installation, we are designing the technology to be as cheap and flexible as possible. Right now each install costs about $600 dollars, which is higher than we’d like. The primary costs are two scrolling led signs, and a small netbook computer to run our software. The system all runs off a centralized server that aggregates the bus arrival time and calendar information, allowing us to link individual installed signs to different feeds of information. This centralization of content also makes software maintenance and feature additions much easier. Since this is a pilot program we know we need to design a system that supports rapid iteration as feedback comes in. To address cost we are halfway into the development of cheap off-the-shelf routers to replace the netbooks, hacked up run our software. Once this is in place we hope to drive the price down to $350 (with slightly dimmer LED signs).


The strong Union Sq community organizations have helped us address a number of challenges allready. After initial discussions they knew who the most receptive business owners would be to this idea. In addition, after strating off thinking we would have to address the community calendaring issue (a hard problem which a number of people around the world are working on), we realized that we could simply rely on geo-locating the Scout’s overall Somerville calendar to show only the events that were local to Union Square. Now that the signs are installed, we are working together to find ways to get the word out about the signs and what they do. One of our ongoing challeneges is determining the right way to reflect the multilingual culture of the area. Anybody out there know a cheap LED signs that supports international characters?

We’ve developed an assessment plan with Sviatlana Fahmy, our in-house evaluation expert. This will include observation and surveying to assess the impact of our signage for the public, the business owners, and the community organizations against our goals. With our community partnership in place, some signs installed, and a monitoring plan in place we hope that over the summer we can iterate well to have data showing success! Due to some initial promotion by our partners, we’ve already recieved inquiries from a number of other Main Streets organizations interested in this work. In addition, we’re using the same technology in our initial phase of the SameBoat project with our partners at the Community Foundation of South Woods County. We installed six signs around the town to feature community events with the goal of increasing awareness of the rich set of services available to those in need in the area.


(1) The Union Sq Farmer’s Market has wonderful data that shows an increasing trend where attendees are spending more money at local businesses while the market is running.

(2) The local OneVille effort held focus groups in mid 2010 that led to them declaring resource calendaring as the focus of one of their sub-workgroups, so this is an established issue in the community.