How the Humble Payment Kiosk Is Paving the Way to Smart Cities

If you’ve used an ATM or paid for parking at a roadside kiosk, you’re familiar with how kiosks can transform everyday transactions. Interactive kiosks – those backed with computer technology – have been around since the 1970s. In the 1990s, stores connected kiosks to phone lines to transfer information. Today, kiosks are often connected to the cloud and highly secure, and are used for everything from checking in at hotels to paying utility bills.

It’s that latter use that has the potential to transform the way we interact with our governments.

How Kiosks Became a Govtech Golden Child

Our big-picture goal at CityBase is to improve the UX of government for all its users – meaning for everyone. Historically, too many government vendors have focused more on optimizing their profits rather than their products or the user experience for the person receiving government services.

As a result of that and other factors, the current system for engaging with cities makes it expensive to be poor:

    • If you’re unable to pay a bill on time, you start accumulating fines.
    • If you don’t have access to a credit card or checking account, you face an additional burden of going to a payment center to pay in cash.
    • If you’re not near a payment center, you may have to resort to a check-cashing store, which charges for its services.

But all these problems are addressable, and kiosks are a big part of the solution.

One city we work with, for example, will be rolling out a network of payment kiosks across the entire city, many of which will provide 24/7 access. When the project is complete, 90 percent of city residents will be within walking distance of a self-service, cash-accepting kiosk. This means that those without access to banking services will consistently have a convenient, no-cost way to pay their bills in cash.

The immediate impact here is that city residents have a much smaller burden for paying utility bills, fines (like parking tickets or library fines), and other city expenses (like business taxes or dog licenses). This means the city can collect more on-time payments, which means everybody wins.

The long-term impact is that the network of kiosks sets the stage for a truly smart city (or what we like to call an “intelligent city”).

How Kiosks Lay the Groundwork for Intelligent Cities

In the United States, 33.5 million households are un- or underbanked, meaning they aren’t able to pay with a credit card or check. Expanding online payment options – and often other digital service delivery – doesn’t necessarily help them.

Payment kiosks address a broader picture of universal access to government services. In addition to making it easy to get to a payment kiosk, we’re also focused on making the software easy for everyone to use. Our research has led us to modify our interface design so that the kiosks are optimized for people with vision impairments, those with low literacy skills, and those who are non-native English speakers.

The result is that average transaction time is less than a minute if you’re paying in cash, and even shorter if you’re paying with a card or check.

And this year, we’ve rolled out kiosks that allow users to make payments for multiple utility providers and to multiple city agencies from a single machine. This leads to several important adjustments to how a person can interact with their local government and other necessary service providers:

    • For cash-paying customers, this is significantly more convenient than visiting multiple payment centers to pay bills. And 24/7 locations allow people to conveniently pay all their bills on their schedule, rather than needing to take time off work to visit multiple payment centers during business hours.
    • Customers are already highly incentivized to have an account with their utility providers, which they pay at least monthly – but not necessarily with their city, which they interact with irregularly. When there’s the option of paying all types of debt from a single kiosk, people are nudged toward creating an account with the city.
    • Once a person has an account with the city, the city can spot trends. For example, say a person misses a parking ticket, then gets a boot fee, then misses a utility payment. Together, this information suggests a financial shock such as job loss. When a city sees this pattern, it can reach out to offer support services (like a payment plan) so the resident avoids a cycle of debt and is able to participate more fully in the city and its economy.

Cities will be able to see these trends even when people are paying with cash, which is notoriously hard to track, and which is the signature of many of our country’s most financially vulnerable residents.

The Kiosk-Lined Path to Intelligent Cities

In the last 12 months alone, we’ve seen 144,000 unique new users make a transaction on one system of kiosks in Alabama. This year, we’re helping multiple utility providers share that same statewide kiosk infrastructure. As with all our products and software, we’ll use data from these places to iterate and improve our offerings as we expand around the country.

Kiosks provide another touchpoint for cities to offer additional services. For instance, they can promote payment plans and enroll people at the time of payment. Cities will be able to react to behavior that indicates financial instability (like paying a single bill in multiple installments or paying months in advance) to provide residents support that’s tailored to their needs. In short, kiosks will help cities become intelligent, accessible, and proactive so that every resident has a better chance of thriving.