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Saturday, February 6, 2016

Stupid Uses of Smart Technology

Last year, the train station I use (PATCO) installed several LCD signs in each of its stations, some on the platform and some down by the gate.  I don't know the actual cost, but they look like pretty hardy all weather devices.  I'm sure the project cost at least several hundred thousand dollars.

Up until this time, PATCO had posted paper schedules at the stations, and also posted paper notices as needed.  Finally, I thought, PATCO was moving into the modern era with new signs.  I had visions of seeing postings of when the next train was leaving, so commuters did not have to run when they heard the train approaching, or unnecessarily hurry through ticket purchases, just in case one came.  I also thought we might look forward to real time postings of delays or other problems.

None of that happened though.  For a while, they posted all the times for all trains, in fine print, making it difficult to find the relevant information.  There was not even an attempt to highlight the next train on the list.  Eventually, I guess they decided the schedule was too difficult to read, so they want back to posting papers schedules.

When there were track problems and major delays recently, no information appeared on the signs.  Commuters had to rely on announcements made by train operators on the decades old PA systems that were often incomprehensible.

Lately, the signs have posted no useful information.  They are simply used to post those meaningless advice ads, like "be sure to keep your bags with you" or "don't take up two seats when you sit on the train."

My point in describing this example is not just to criticize PATCO (though it deserves the criticism) but to make the larger point about how great technology often fails when put to use by users who are unconcerned about getting much out of the technology.  The many benefits of the new electronic signage could have made commuters' lives easier, but the company never bothered to put them to use. They should have saved their money and stuck with the much cheaper method of posting paper signs and flyers from time to time.

Better yet, hire someone who understands how to use technology.  Hire someone who can publish real time information about train times or delays, who can make the signs relevant to commuters' lives.  Make the signs dynamic with useful information that is updated throughout the day.  This is the benefit the technology offers.

Many people mindlessly buy more technology than they need or want.  In my job, I support people who buy the latest iPhones, but never use it for anything other than making phone calls or perhaps occasionally checking email.  I know people who buy state of the art ultra thin laptops but never move the machine off of their desk.  I see companies who go through the time and trouble to build a web site, then never update the content on it for years.  All of this seems a bit like buying a million dollar Lamborghini and never taking it over 55 mph.

I suppose this is inevitable.  Waste is normal in a wealthy society.  People buy clothes that they never wear or wear only once.  People buy more food than they need, only to throw most of it away. People buy a 400 channel cable package but only ever watch the same six channels.  People buy houses so large that some of the rooms are only used on rare occasions.  Why should technology be different?

Still, it seems beyond frustrating when so much money is invested in technology, only to see it wasted because the user refuses to make use of it.

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