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Visitors navigate Oakland via kiosk

| Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010, 12:00 p.m.

On five of her past six visits to Oakland for appointments at UPMC Presbyterian, Rachel Merlina found herself completely lost.

"There are so many medical buildings associated with other buildings, and I have no sense of direction at all," said Merlina, 62, of Highland Park. "I got lost once for three hours, and I just gave up and skipped my doctor's appointment."

But Innovation Oakland, a cooperative effort among Oakland nonprofits, hospitals and universities, could change the way people find their way around, starting with a high-tech computer kiosk prototype introduced Tuesday in the lobby of UPMC Presbyterian.

The kiosk was designed by Carnegie Mellon University students with an interactive map of shopping, restaurants, parking and doctors' offices. A slot prints out step-by-step directions to the user's destination. Such information would be helpful to the people who constantly come to Oakland for short-term stays, said Georgia Petropoulos Muir, executive director of the Oakland Business Improvement District.

There's also an iPhone app that uses a GPS to locate attractions and businesses, with an added feature proving information about neighborhood events.

"The traditional way of communicating this information is on paper ... brochures, maps, markers. But if we had to do just that in Oakland, I'd be constantly printing brochures," said Petropoulos Muir. "We have a new population coming in every three months, and you never know who's coming into the hospitals."

In community meetings and focus groups over the last year, people identified the "cluttered" environment as one of the obstacles to navigating the neighborhood, said Donald Carter, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Remaking Cities Institute. He showed a picture of Forbes Avenue thick with traffic, rows of street signs, banners and the city's current directional sign system -- which would all be removed and replaced with simplified signs atop tall, glowing pylons, probably sometime after 2011, if funding can be found.

Making the signs more readable and understandable should make the area more friendly to pedestrians and transit users, Petropoulos Muir said.

"If you're walking north, south or east along Fifth Avenue, all you see is the backs of the (current) signs, because they're all designed for cars," she said.

The prototype kiosk and all the work leading up to its deployment were paid for with in-kind services and $185,000 in grants from Carlow University, Carnegie Mellon, the Oakland Business Improvement District, the University of Pittsburgh, UPMC and the Richard King Mellon Foundation. Over the next few months, the kiosk will be tested in lobbies at UPMC, Carnegie Mellon and Carlow, before the group seeks private contractors willing to manufacture more of them.

"They should have better signs, better directions," Merlina said. "It's hard to get around if you're not used to it."

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