Knoxville Tourism Info Kiosks Fall Short

Dubbed "Knoxville's Data Dog," the system could use a shorter leash

Imagine you're visiting Knoxville for the first time and find your way to Market Square. Which of the following are you most likely interested in locating?

a) A campground in Lenoir City

b) A list of all Kentucky Fried Chickens in Knox County

c) A map showing where you are, and all shopping, restaurants, and attractions nearby

If you chose a or b, then the new "TouchKnow&Go" electronic information kiosk on the Square is for you. If you chose c, you're in for a disappointment.

Billed as "Knoxville's Data Dog" and installed last month by the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corporation, the unit is one of four currently in service around downtown. Two are located at the Knoxville Convention Center, and another just outside the Knoxville Visitors Center.

The kiosks, which look something like an ATM from a distance, include a touchscreen, a telephone headset, and a printer.

The kiosks are supposed to allow users to easily search a database using various criteria. And to some extent they do—just not well. For starters, the navigation is inconsistent. Selecting "Restaurants" and then narrowing your choice to "Cuisine" and further to "Downtown" works as expected, providing a list of restaurants serving a particular type of food in downtown. But if you happen to choose "Restaurants" then "Downtown" and then pick a "Cuisine," the results are from all over.

Though touted as being advantageous to businesses by not charging for inclusion, the list is also incomplete, even by the KSTC's standards. Dazzo's, the pizzeria that opened on Gay Street a few months ago, and listed on the KTSC website, isn't included in kiosk results. The systems operate from separate databases.

A search for pubs in the downtown area turns up some results, but doesn't include the venerable Downtown Grill & Brewery only a short walk away (though it is in the database). The Art Mart, located next door to the brewery on Gay Street, likewise doesn't make the list for downtown shopping. And forget about center-city icon J's Mega Mart.

If you do manage to locate a destination, you can pull up a map showing where it is. Regrettably, the map doesn't show where you are. And so there's no sense of how near or far something is, nor how to get there.

In an effort to make the machines ADA compliant, they include a telephone handset. And should a visually impaired person use it during Knoxville Visitor Center hours, it is manned by the center's staff. After they close, you can leave a message.

All of the glitches, quirks, and shortcomings aside, the thing that seems most misguided is that the kiosks are trying to be too comprehensive, and in doing so fail at what they might do best. KTSC's web site is a good source of information on Knoxville overall. And consulting it before visiting the city could very well help you plan a trip from anywhere.

But kiosks are tied to a physical location. And finding what's near that location should be the priority. These aren't drive-up machines. And it's doubtful a pedestrian on Market Square is actually looking to find a deli in Turkey Creek. Concentrating on a comprehensive and up-to-date picture of walkable destinations would seem a more useful approach.

Bob Adkinson, co-developer of the system and an employee of KTSC, says that the database used by the kiosks is "updated by staff on a daily basis." But that's a hefty job if you're trying to catalog every restaurant that opens or closes in the region. Just keeping track of downtown would prove much less daunting. And results would be much more relevant.

In related news, the City of Knoxville has embarked on developing a comprehensive wayfinding system for downtown. The city has contracted with MERJE, a Philadelphia design firm, to develop a strategy for assisting pedestrian and vehicular navigation of downtown. But that effort is in its infancy. The company met with stakeholders, as well as holding a public input session, last Thursday and expects to deliver a plan by the end of the year. Implementation isn't likely before next year or beyond, and hinges on budgetary allocations by the city.

In the meantime, maybe someone can correct such egregious misdirections as pointing motorists exiting Neyland Drive onto Hall of Fame Drive toward the river to reach the Old City. Do we really need a consultant's report to change an arrow on a sign?

Perhaps a few years down the line, when visitors can actually find their way to Market Square without asking directions, KTSC will have had time to train its Data Dog there to fetch more helpful and relevant details about the vicinity, rather than letting it roam all over the place.