New York City's free WiFi kiosks speed up access to social services

Broadband alone won't get anyone off the street.

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When New York City launched its LinkNYC gigabit free WiFi program last year, it was a win for internet accessibility. With over 800 devices currently spread across New York City, the kiosks provide municipal broadband for anyone in WiFi range, as well as charging outlets, free phone calls, maps and directions, 911 access and a built-in tablet anyone can use. While the city unfortunately had to disable the web browsers due to some users' awkward browsing habits, LinkNYC kiosks are getting a new feature that will help users without internet access quickly find social programs and safety net services.

As Citylab reports, the kiosks are adding an app from Austin-based Aunt Bertha -- the so-called "Yelp for Social Services." Aunt Bertha maintains a database of resources like emergency housing, soup kitchens, food pantries, transportation assistance, or childcare and healthcare providers. It covers everything from government programs and large nonprofits to neighborhood services, then makes all their information searchable by zip code in one place, rather than spread out over each group's website. According to Citylab, the LinkNYC app will also highlight nearby services based on the kiosk's location.

In addition to Aunt Bertha's services, the kiosks are also adding a direct link to ACCESS NYC, the city's own site for helping New Yorkers enroll in city, state and federal social programs.

LinkNYC is a consortium that includes Qualcomm, CIVIQ Smartscapes and Intersection -- a municipal media company that received investment from Alphabet-owned Sidewalk Labs. While the kiosks have come under scrutiny for data privacy concerns in the past, the city has just announced a revised privacy policy detailing the network's commitment to user privacy. LinkNYC expects to have 7,500 kiosks across the city by 2025.

This post has been updated to include ACCESS NYC and to clarify Sidewalk Labs' relationship to LinkNYC.