Mixed Feelings From JPA About Proposed E-Ink Signs

The Jamaica Pond Association (JPA) met for their monthly meeting on August 5, where there was a light agenda but a semi-contentious proposal from a company called Soofa, who spe-cializes in making e-ink community sign boards.  The signs currently exist in neighborhoods like Fenway and Chinatown in Boston, as well as Atlanta and Miami. Dan Schwartz of Soofa said that they have explored doing a “potential pilot” in Jamaica Plain, possibly on Centre St with 3-5 signs in the business district. He said they have met with the JP Business and Professional Association and other stakeholders in the community to begin the discussion.

Schwartz explained that the company is a spinout of the MIT Media Lab, and first created the Soofa Bench, which is located in over 100 cities around the world.

“The bench was really successful but we heard from cities and community groups that they wanted to communicate with their residents,” he said. So the Soofa sign was born—the sign consists of a digital e-ink board that is solar powered. The screen’s appearance is identical to a Kindle; it is not backlit.

Installation involves screwing four bolts into the ground, and since it is powered by the sun, there is no wiring needed, Schwartz said. He also said that the screen itself will have two por-tions: the upper 75 percent and the bottom 25 percent. He said the upper portion of the screen changes every two minutes, and consists of content uploaded by the community on an app called SoofaTalk. Anyone can use the app to upload content that would be pertinent to the community, as the board would be used like an electronic community bulletin board. The boards are financed by sponsored content from local businesses.

“We monitor the content,” Schwartz replied to a concern about inappropriate or hateful com-ment being posted. “We look at every single piece of content that goes up.” He said that dur-ing normal business hours, a piece of content that is uploaded through the app can be put on the board within 15 minutes. There are guidelines for content put forth by Soofa, but communi-ties can also create their own guidelines for content as well, he said. “In two years, not one piece of offensive content has been posted,” Schwartz added.

On the bottom 25 percent of the screen, content is populated by an applet that is typically chosen by the community. “People have gravitated towards the community calendar,” Schwartz said, which will post events within a ten minute walk of the sign. The lower portion could also be used as a real-time transit display app and provide an up-to-date bus sched-ule, which seemed to be a popular feature among some JPA members who frequently use public transportation. “We have been experimenting with different orientations for the screens,” Schwartz said.

There was a question about vandalism, to which Schwartz said that a maintenance team goes out once a week to all the signs looking for graffiti, as well as making sure the sign is functioning properly. He also said that Soofa has “strong relationships” with local businesses and people in the community, so if any issues arise, they will be addressed promptly.

If the signs were to come to Jamaica Plain, Schwartz said they would be located int he right of way on the sidewalk, in similar locations on the sidewalk as Big Belly trash receptacles. He said they usually work with the community to determine the precise locations for the signs.

Ed Burley of the JPA told Schwartz that coming back with specific spots in mind for the signs would be helpful in determining “the viability of Centre Street,” he said.

Schwartz said that this process is typically very community-driven, but he would be happy to send over tentative locations.

While some people appreciated the community features of these signs, the positivity was not unanimous. JPA member Kevin Moloney said he was very opposed to these signs being put on Centre Street He said that the narrow size and scope of the sidewalks, especially with the city’s street redesign plan, will not allow for these signs to fit. Centre Street is set to undergo a redesign plan with improved street furniture, addressing tree pits, and redoing street lighting. Moloney said that as the sidewalks currently are, it’s difficult for wheelchairs and people with strollers to get by each other, and he would like to see the sidewalks expanded.

“My opinion is that this is something that would be inappropriate for existing Centre Street and a new and improved Centre Street,” Moloney said, adding that he wants to encourage people in the JPA to oppose this proposal.

“There are always a lot of concerns about cluttering the streetscape,” Schwartz said. “We typically stay in line with other street furniture that exists.”

JPA member Franklyn Salimbene said he agrees that the bus schedule feature of the signs would be “great,” however, he also thinks the sidewalks on Centre Street are too narrow for the signs. “With the addition of advertising, it becomes even more of a problem because it isn’t just a community board,” he said, adding that he also thinks the 92 inch height is a problem.

Schwartz also mentioned the possibly of putting some signs near Jamaica Pond, but Salim-bene said that “anything that takes away from the beauty of nature is a problem. I think the Pond is problematic and the current sidewalks on Centre Street are problematic,” he said.

Community member Sarah Freeman agreed that the size was a negative, but she said a posi-tive of the signs would be that there would be a lot less clutter from paper flyers flying around the streets. She said if people learn that there is a new way to advertise events and the like, “it could be not a horrible thing,” but it has to fit within its surroundings.

“We have no intention of moving forward if we don’t have a broad coalition of support in the community,” Schwartz said.

This meeting was just an informal proposal to present the idea to the community. No vote was taken by the JPA, and Soofa will continue its discussions with different community organiza-tions about its proposal. 

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