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Michael Bloomberg Wants You to Design New York City's Payphone of the Future

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, December 7 2012

New York City's new payphones may be so different that the term "payphone" will no longer apply, according to Rahul Merchant, the city's chief information and innovation officer.

The city has launched a contest calling for new ways to use the payphone's connectivity and power source as a way for citizens to access information and navigate the city using modern technology.

New York City currently manages around 11,000 payphones across the five boroughs. The city entered into a number of franchise contracts for the installation, maintenance and operation of public payphones in 1999, and those expire on October 15, 2014.

Over the past year, the city has already been taking steps to rethink how the payphone serves New Yorkers. Earlier this summer, the city issued a request for information seeking comments from members of the public and potential providers of communication services, a process that received several submissions from telecommunications companies, community boards, nonprofits and others.

At the same time, New York City also launched a pilot program offering free public WiFi through payphones that now offers service at thirteen locations.

In the past few weeks, the city has also launched a City 24x7 SmartScreens pilot on some payphones that offer information about subways, local events and neighborhood businesses. The city is experimenting with digital advertising on some payphones around Times Square.

While the city's remaining 11,000 payphones are not used as much as they once were, Merchant said, they are still used by people without access to mobile phones and are also useful during emergencies like Hurricane Sandy.

The contest invites students, urban designers, planners, technologists and policy experts to submit prototype ideas for a future payphone concept, especially people who would not typically hunt city business, said Rachel Haot, New York City's chief digital officer said.

Contest participants have until Feb. 18 to submit their prototype idea. The contest is open to anyone who is 18 or over and is a U.S. resident. The judgement criteria for the submissions will be connectivity, creativity, visual design, and functionality. The judges are John Borthwick, founder & CEO of betaworks, Majora Carter, CEO of Startup Box, Jason Goodman, CEO and co-founder of 3rd Ward, Ben Kaufman, founder and CEO of Quirky, CEO & Chief Old Person of, and Beth Noveck, founder of the White House Open Government Initiative. Up to 15 semi-finalists will be selected to present their submissions at a demo day on March 5, 2013, and to compete for three prizes. The top three winners will also be featured on the city's Facebook page for a public vote.

Haot said the initiative followed from the city's earlier Reinvent and Reinvent Green sustainability initiatives.

With the payphones, she said, the guiding idea is that the concepts will "leverage the infrastructure these phones are connected to further civic engagement, offer a tool to provide feedback and access information or provide service delivery."

"This is the thread of the Bloomberg administration, to use existing infrastructure and landscapes and find new uses for them," she said, "from WiFi in public parks and the development of the High Line."

Some ideas also include using the payphones as kiosks, charging stations or a solar power source.

"The sky is the limit," Merchant emphasized. "The ideas of touch screens, WiFi hotspots, those are just the teasers," he added, saying that the city is interested in ideas "that are completely outside the box."

He said he envisioned a "device that is futuristic and can serve our citizens and help them navigate the world."

The payphone should still retain its status as a device of last resort, Haot implied.

"If we do innovate in a way that takes communication to the next level, we want to ensure the payphones also have the longevity to serve a public information role in an emergency," she said, noting how payphones were used after Sandy.

As part of the initiative, the city is partnering with several New York City colleges and universities to promote the project including Cornell NYC Tech, New York Law School and Parsons The New School for Design. The city is also partnering with several New York start-ups. Details about the project are displayed on a platform provided by, an online event planning tool, and the city is using Collabfinder as a way for interested members of the public to find a team to work with.

Many people have also begun offering ideas through the hashtag #reinventpayphones, and some external partners have expressed interest in hosting a weekend hackathon as part of the contest, Haot said.

The winning concepts can help lead to a "framework that if desired we can integrate ... into the city's plans. We can integrate the design or the prototype as a design reference, or a concept reference or even as a requirement within the RFP to the vendor community."

Citing interest outside New York in the WiFi initiative and Mayor Michael Bloomberg's legacy, Merchant suggested that the effort would once again position New York City as an example for other cities. "This mayor is a technical mayor, he is a technically savvy mayor who aims to make the best uses of technology," Merchant said. "He started with 311 and now everybody is looking at that as a gold standard."