Network: Magic Touch

Stephen Pritchard sees one of Manchester's most notorious estates getting connected to the wired world via touch-screen kiosks
The crescents of Hulme are being consigned to the urban design history books. Once among Manchester's most notorious estates, the concrete flats - originally modelled to reflect the classical beauty of Bath - are giving way to newer, more human rows of terraced houses.

Hulme is improving in other ways, too. Given that the district is by no means wealthy - unemployment, and lower-than-average participation in education are just some of the problems - access to the Internet may not seem an obvious cure for Hulme's ills. But an internationally-funded project is setting out to achieve just such a hi-tech cure, and they're calling it "Tardis".

Organised by IT group SEMA, with support from the European Commission, and partners including NEC, Manchester City Council and Virgin Net, the Tardis project will give people in Hulme, and other parts of the city, a way to make use of the Internet's information and opportunities. There will be terminals in libraries, community centres, the city's Big Issue office, and even in a branch of the Asda supermarket chain.

There are already places in Manchester where people without a computer can use the Internet, including local libraries and through organisations such as the Manchester Community Information Network (MCIN).

The Tardis project uses touch-screen kiosks. This is not new, either. As Vin Sumner, business development director at SEMA, concedes, there are other initiatives that use kiosk technology to put computers in public places. The the system used in the Manchester kiosks, called "Magic Touch", differs from others in the quality of its information, Sumner maintains. "Rather than just another kiosk, we are mixing public and private information," he says.

Magic Touch contains pages on services in Manchester, including childcare, health and local facilities. But Mr Sumner was anxious to ensure it was not just the sort of dry text that would mean the terminal would "sit in the corner". Instead, SEMA designed its own interface, to make the system attractive and accessible to the casual user.

The sort of information the partnership is promoting includes WorkWeb, an Internet job search site, news and sport from the Press Association, and entertainment pages from Virgin Net. At the moment, the kiosks do not provide "free and unrestricted access onto the Net", says Peter Jones of SEMA. "We positively vet sites that we believe provide suitable information resources." In time, the system will move to "negative vetting", with intelligent agent software from Autonomy preventing access to unsuitable sites.

The system's developers acknowledged that not everyone will want to give personal information, or even their names and addresses, to a public terminal. Instead, users are invited to register a nickname, which then lets them on to the Web and gives a limited e-mail facility.

Local information - including pages from MCIN - is held in the kiosks themselves. The rest is accessed via a server at Internet provider Poptel, over ISDN connections. "Most people's needs can be met without going online," says Peter Jones.

This is important in keeping costs down. The project is funded for six months, and after that the system will transfer to Manchester City Council. SEMA hopes Magic Touch will be able to pay its own way, either through advertising or sponsorship.

The system is able to build up a profile of its users, based on the pages they access. For the first six months, SEMA will run the kiosks as a research project. But the software could also have commercial uses, especially in environments like a supermarket, where it could collect data on shoppers' preferences. Peter Jones concedes that information-gathering of this sort might deter some people from using the kiosks, so it is not live, yet.

SEMA's objective, according to Mr Jones, is to see exactly the sort of use the kiosks attract. The idea is to allow a large number of people to use the system for short periods, which is why it uses a touch-screen computer rather than a conventional PC. "The research focuses on trying to find out if people will use the system, and if not, why not."

For now, no one is sure how many people will use the kiosks. At the Kath Locke Centre in Hulme, some visitors looked at the terminal but none actually used it during the space of some two hours. However, Fay Selvan, chief executive of the centre, says there are already some people who travel some distance to use the terminals. She expects numbers to grow as word of the system spreads.

The kiosk is changing the centre's views on information, Ms Selvan says. "We are going to have Web pages for our own services, and we are encouraging people to put on their own Web sites. We would not have thought of doing that without the machine".