These new newspaper racks from the Tampa Bay Times are tracking your emotions, age and gender

It's looking back.

click to enlarge These new newspaper racks from the Tampa Bay Times are tracking your emotions, age and gender
Photo by Scott Harrell

The Tampa Bay Times is rolling out new high-tech newspaper racks that not only display real-time videos, but also track your gender, age and emotions.

Like smaller, indoor billboards, the new TimesVision racks feature a 24-inch monitor that play a loop of alternating video clips, showing either an advertisement, an in-store promotion, or editorial content from the Tampa Bay Times.

The racks also collect data from anyone who walks in front of the optical sensor. This data includes your gender, approximate age, how long you stared at the rack, and whether you feel angry, happy, or just plain meh about the videos featured on the monitors.

The Times says the racks do not record any video of patrons, nor do they store any personal information. However, the data from your interaction is indeed stored.

Though an April 11 story from the Tampa Bay Times stated that the racks have “no long term memory,” Times’ Executive Vice President and Chief Digital Officer Conan Gallaty clarified to Creative Loafing that data is kept for a length of time in order to track user engagement.

“Yes, the data we log for the number of people who watch TimesVision does stay with us over time in order to know if devices are being viewed more or less often,” said Gallaty in an email. “With this feedback, we’ll know if the content we are creating is valued by the audience that sees it. By saying 'no long term memory' we simply mean we’re not recording anyone’s image or sound. We have no way of identifying people individually, now or in the future.”

When asked how the new racks are different from reading a story on a phone, which also tracks a user’s data, Gallaty promises that the new racks offer a new way for readers to engage with the paper — like, a screen for when you’re not staring at your other screen.

“A mobile phone can certainly provide more data about individuals than a TimesVision device because a phone is unique to a person,” explained Gallaty. “TimesVision is more like a digital billboard. Like all signage, TimesVision works best when it catches your eye with something interesting. You may not have been seeking it while shopping, but, if we provide good content, TimesVision can be engaging.”

So far, 53 new TimesVision racks have been installed throughout Tampa Bay, with more coming soon. If this seems like a rapid expansion for a new platform, it’s because it most definitely is. But Gallaty says the new racks are not coming at a cost to current readers, and are completely unrelated to the recent paywall subscriptions on the Tampa Bay Times' website.

“TimesVision is unrelated to our new subscription efforts,” said Gallaty. “We have a large audience on that reads our journalism every day, and we’re asking them to support what we do with a subscription. That said, we hope non-readers will see TimesVision, buy a paper and consider a subscription if they like what they read.”

Constantly being tracked by a company is nothing new. You're more than likely being tracked right now by Zuckerberg, or being listened to by Alexa. But unlike reading a story online, the Tampa Bay Times racks collect your data whether or not you consent to any terms of service. Not to mention the launch of these new data-collecting racks comes at a time when the public is arguably becoming more and more weary of what's considered public and private information. Coincidentally, roughly 24 hours after the new racks debuted, the New York Times launched a new project solely focused on privacy and what the public is willing to give up, even exploring how they themselves track their own reader data. 

The Tampa Bay Times is hardly the first newspaper to dabble with interactive racks, nor are they the first paper to bring video displays to retailers — Salt Lake City Weekly, a free alternative weekly newspaper in Salt Lake City, Utah, debuted interactive news racks, complete with ads and digital coupons, back in 2014. But Tampa Bay Times may be one of the first to use their racks to collect readership data.

A good rule of thumb right now is anything incorporating the word "smart" or "interactive" means you're probably giving something up. 

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About The Author

Colin Wolf

Colin Wolf has been working with weekly newspapers since 2007 and has been the Digital Editor for Creative Loafing Tampa since 2019. He is also the Director of Digital Content Strategy for CL's parent company, Euclid Media Group.
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