Solar-powered digital ‘smart’ signs installed in downtown Northampton

  • New signs by Pulaski Park in Northampton. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • One of two new digital signs installed downtown Northmpton to provide information about events and other community news to passersby. This sign is in front of Pulaski Park. Another sign is in front of the Hampshire County Courthouse. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette
Published: 8/13/2021 6:19:17 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Two new digital “smart” signs have been installed downtown that provide a variety of information for residents, from news about local art venues to details about community meetings, directions to summer concerts, and other city news, such as updates on mask mandates.

The signs, located along Main Street outside of Pulaski Park and in front of the Hampshire County Courthouse, are solar powered and wire-free. They were developed by Soofa, a Cambridge company started from an innovation lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Northampton is the second community in western Massachusetts — Amherst installed similar signs in earlier this year — to bring these smart signs to their sidewalks in an effort to give every passerby, especially those without a digital device, access to information.

“The city has been focused on how we can communicate with residents, particularly visitors to our downtown, about important information,” Mayor David Narkewicz said. “It’s an important way to add to our wayfinding in our downtown for people to get around.”

And while the mayor said he believes the signs are important additions to the city’s infrastructure in regards to communicating with visitors and aiding in navigation, he added, “I think it’s a technology that is designed in some ways to also break down the digital divide for people that may not have access to all those various online platforms, or may not have access to a phone, or other digital devices.”

The signs are sponsored by UMassFive College Federal Credit Union, and each one is wrapped in purple vinyl, with the credit union’s logo on the top of one side and a map of Northampton beneath it.

On the other side of the sign, a 42-inch screen displays various local feeds such as the calendar from and updates that the city may want to broadcast immediately, like COVID-19 mandates or parking bans due to impending snow.

The signs are also useful in supporting businesses, and Soofa is particularly interested in local ones.

“Some of the areas that we have our signs are also providing advertising opportunities for small and large brands,” said Holly Mckenna, Soofa’s vice president of sales. “Especially for local businesses within the communities, we want to make sure that they have an opportunity to advertise within their hyper-local market.”

The signs employ electronic ink technology so that they don’t disturb the surrounding passerby or scenery. The black-and-white screen looks just like a Kindle’s, and prevents cities from feeling like Times Square, Mckenna said.

Mayor Narkewicz views the smart signs as a “modern iteration of a community message board” where people would have originally hung flyers and posters about local events and activities.

“This is kind of a modern version of that, in a way, to be able to push that and provide that information,” he said. “But in a much more compact, smaller space and easier to manage and read.”

The signs will be officially unveiled with a ribbon-cutting ceremony scheduled for Thursday at 4:30 p.m.


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