If you want to know the time, ask a police multimedia telematics kiosk. If Newham, the east London borough, gets approval from the European Commission, kiosks will start appearing in shopping centres, health centres and blocks of flats in a little over a year's time.
Multimedia kiosks are already commonplace in the US, and are making headway in Britain. They look like hole-in-the-wall bank machines, but have touch-screen control, a document scanner, a telephone and a video camera.
The Newham kiosks will be connected to the police and the local council, and will offer arange of services. Residents will be able to ask for directions, present a driving licence or MOT certificate, or report a crime. They will also be able to make complaints, make objections to planning proposals and check on the progress of earlier inquiries.
Holders of smart cards - with computer chips built in - will be able to check on the balance of their council tax account, and determine through a simple yes/no routine whether they are entitled to council tax benefit. It is intended to extend the system to include a comprehensive welfare rights advice service.
Perhaps most important, in a borough where 13 languages are widely spoken, the kiosks will be linked by video to a centre where interpreters will offer immediate translation.
The scheme is part of Newham's attempt to keep in closer touch with its citizens. It is also part of a wider European scheme called Advanced TransEuropean Telematics Applications for Community Help (Attach), which is why Newham, along with the Metropolitan Police and equipment supplier Olivetti, is waiting to hear whether it will receive funding from the EU. Bids are also going in to set up the system in other European cities, including Marseilles and Thessalonika, as well as the central Scottish police region.
The kiosks are expected to generate income. Businesses will be permitted to sell their services on the network, and it is hoped to enter into contracts with other local authorities to sell the translation facilities that are part of the scheme.
Newham, the most deprived borough in the country, will provide simultaneous translation facilities for the seven most commonly spoken foreign languages (six from the Indian subcontinent, plus Chinese) and another three by appointment. Signers will be available for the deaf once the video link is fast enough for accurate signing.
The system is expected to make translation easier and cheaper for the council and the police, with translators based in one office at the end of a video link. At present, they have to travel to meetings, and are usually available only by appointment. Eventually, they will be able to work from home.
The hardware, which is already available, is essentially the same as that used in Thomas Cook's travel kiosks. These enable customers to compare resorts and prices, call up additional information, speak live to a sales person on a video link and then pay by credit card.
A network of kiosks is just the first stage. Newham residents who subscribe to cable television will be able to use the system, free of charge, from their own homes. Hand-held terminals, similar to remote control television handsets, will provide access to the basic system, working on a yes/no basis. Handsets will be given free to residents with cable links.