A Look Back
Storm Messaging: The Impact of Digital Urban Panels
They sit atop the entrances at more than 50 Manhattan subway stations like digital sentries. The 48-inch wide, double-sided flat panel LCD screens, installed by the agency’s advertising vendor CBS Outdoors, regularly display crystal-clear digital advertising providing the transit system with much needed revenue. But in the days leading up to, and after Hurricane Sandy crippled the subway system, the Digital Urban Panels proved to be an effective digital billboard for communicating critical service information to the riding public.
“We’ve always looked to our website to provide critical information to our customers during an emergency, as was the case with Hurricane Sandy,” said Paul J. Fleuranges, Vice President of Corporate Communications at NYC Transit. “But based on the predictions and the fact we were shutting down the system, we realized we needed every possible channel to communicate to customers, and the Urban Panels are a very effective channel.”
The Urban Panels were put into use prior to the storm’s arrival, informing customers that the subway system and commuter rail network would be shut down in an orderly fashion beginning at 7:00pm on October 28, 2012. That message stayed up until October 29th, when it was replaced by a new message advising customers “This station is closed due to severe weather conditions.”
Freshening the message
Messages were created by Marketing & Service Information artist Ann Feldman who worked from home. Once approved, by Connie Depalma, then Creative Services Director, they were fed by Advertising Manager Bob Keenan to CBS Outdoor for posting to the screens from its facility in Spokane, Washington. “We tried to update the message to be as timely as possible,” said Depalma who worked from her blackberry because her home on Long Island had no power. “What had become a smooth process took a turn for the worse when we lost the screens below 39th Street,” added Keenan who also lost power to his home, and was forced to use his car as a makeshift office.
The screens were temporarily turned off immediately after the storm because of widespread power outages and because the servers that feed data to the screens shut down because of flooding. Beginning on the morning of Thursday, November 1, the screens came back to life.
Urban panels allow fine-tuning of message
“With each screen having its own unique digital address, messaging on the screens became more granular once power was restored, allowing us to target information to customers using the lines at the stations where the screens were located,” added Fleuranges. NYC Transit also used the screens to post an overall system scorecard, describing current conditions while service was incrementally restored. By Tuesday, November 6, service had been restored to the extent that it was again possible to mix in advertising content in a limited way with service messaging.
“Providing digital and ‘addressable’ media on the streets of New York is a major opportunity for advertisers who love the flexibility as well as the vibrancy of the new urban panels. What we learned last year when the hurricane hit, is just how valuable these signs are in being able to provide up to the minute MTA information,” said Jodi Senese, spokeswoman for CBS Outdoor, which manages the screens’ advertising displays for the MTA. “Not only were we able to broadcast the initial news of the subway shutdown, we were able to provide very detailed information as individual lines were restored. Together with our MTA partners, we were able to provide this vital communication to all New Yorkers.”
Hurricane Sandy is the first citywide emergency in which the digital displays have been available for use. They were first installed as a pilot program in early 2011 at two stations: 14 St-Union Square, and 34th Street & Seventh Avenue. They were expanded to 102 locations between November 2011 and January 2012. Further expansions are under consideration as funding allows. The MTA hopes to provide a similar service underground as well with its expanding network of “On the Go!” interactive screens.
The overall dimensions of the flat-screen panels measure 65 inches wide by 43 inches tall. They are wrapped in heavy-duty protective housing to shield them from the elements and vandals.
Reliable info from the source
Information that feeds the screens comes from MTA New York City Transit’s central subway control center. That control center also feeds information to the MTA’s website, email and text alerts, in-station screens that are always 100% dedicated to displaying service information, the On the Go! interactive kiosks, countdown clocks, and in-station public address systems.
When the servers went dark because of flooding, the MTA worked with CBS Outdoor to set up a temporary data feed through CBS’ facility in Spokane, Washington.
The Urban Panels received praise earlier this year from the digital signage industry. CBS Outdoors was the recipient of a 2013 Gold Apex & Content Award for first place in the Transportation sector at the Digital Signage Expo (DSE) held in Las Vegas in February..