The Future of Smart Cities: How Soofa Is Driving Community Engagement With IoT Technology

The next time you’re strolling through downtown Boston, Atlanta, or Las Vegas, be on the lookout for tall, slender digital signs announcing concerts, transit delays, or even restaurant discounts. While glowing digital billboards are now commonplace worldwide, the Soofa Sign is something different: an old-fashioned community bulletin board reimagined for the 21st century.

Soofa, IoT, Particle, Smart City

The Soofa sign is the world’s first electronic paper display billboard designed for communities. Powered by Particle’s Electron, these billboards use IoT cellular communication to collect data on usage and more.

“Our vision for the Soofa Sign is to give citizens control of the content they see outdoors in their neighborhoods. For us, a ‘smart city’ is a place that uses technology to make public spaces more social and more connected.”

Ed Krafcik, Soofa’s Director of Strategic Partnerships and Business

From Bench to Bulletin Boards

Soofa, IoT, Particle, Smart City

Even the former president of the United States has used Soofa technology

The Soofa Signs builds on the success of the Soofa Bench, which provides wireless charging ports for citizens and connected sensors that gauge foot traffic for officials in over 125 cities.

Once the solar-powered Soofa Signs are installed, citizens can request a free two-week posting of just about anything via the Soofa Talk site (a paid tier for local advertisers is also available). In exchange for the street space, Soofa also lets cities post 311-style local public service or emergency announcements.

Building Connected Bulletin Boards

At the outset, Soofa struggled with its cellular modem and data provider. Out of frustration, its developers tried prototyping with Particle’s Electron, a small cellular IoT board and development kit that includes everything needed for creating cellular-connected products, including back-end data management. 

Electron, IoT, Particle

Particle’s easy and reliable OTA firmware updates were a game changer and saved us weeks of development and testing. Particle is the heart of the Soofa Sign’s. It controls the hardware and sends sensor data back to our cloud.”

Kenn Sebesta, Soofa’s Director of Hardware and Firmware.

It’s that data that makes these signs “smart.” After a sign is set up, Soofa evaluates the frequency of community posts, the common themes, and types of posts to understand how different neighborhoods engage with the signs. The types of posts typically include everything from event advertisements, to community meeting notices, and local business-sponsored content.

These metrics help Soofa better understand how the signs are being used, while also helping city leaders get a sense of what their communities care about.

Control Your Signs With Soofa

Soofa, IoT, Particle, Smart City

“We do a lot of work around real-time updates so that all of the content is being updated over cellular,” said Krafcik. “It’s pretty sophisticated, but at the end of the day, what people really understand and value is the simple concept of a useful community bulletin board.”

It seems to be working. In Atlanta, where 30 Soofa Signs debuted last spring, 200 users posted more than 1,000 notices in the first few months. Today, the Soofa Sign network sees over 50 pieces of local content posted per week. This includes everything from advertisements from local businesses, community posts about upcoming events or block parties, and regular updates and information from the City of Atlanta Department of Customer Service.

Going forward, Krafcik hopes conversations about smart cities move beyond technology and focus more on the people who actually live in them, what they need, and how city government can best serve them. It’s real-time, sensor-equipped IoT devices like the Soofa Sign that will provide the data to make those discussions meaningful.  

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