Once a staple in New York City communications, the payphone is living a much lonelier existence these days. Outside of emergencies (like Hurricane Sandy), payphones have essentially become urban clutter — rarely used and crowding scarce public space. To hopefully solve this problem, earlier this year New York City challenged techies and designers to reinvent, reimagine and repurpose the city’s 11,000 payphone kiosks. The way New Yorkers consume information has changed, and the City challenged the tech community to design a payphone that fits this new era of communications.
A team of InSITE fellows quickly formed to tackle the design challenge. We first came together at the ITP PayPhone Hackathon, where we devised the concept of Street Beacon (see the online demo at www.street-beacon.com).
Street Beacon recasts the historical use of beacons for the modern-day New York payphone network. The core idea of Street Beacon is that it is a 2-way beacon, 1. providing hyper-local real-time information for each payphone location and 2. collecting data from across the city’s payphones and using an API to make that data available to the public and technology community.
Street Beacon’s main communications strategy lies in providing hyper-local real-time information for each payphone location, and each payphone location has its own Twitter handle that serves up this info. The Street Beacon service pull tons of NYC data from all sorts of APIs, and then curates it to each location. So, for example, for Washington Square Park, the feed of information shows MTA alerts, weather, local news, Mayor notices, community events, etc., that are specific to that exact location. The idea is that you can 1. subscribe to the payphone Twitter handles most relevant to you (say, those closest to home and work), 2. use the Street Beacon app which will always show you the feed of the handle closest by (for when you’re on the go), or 3. walk up to the physical payphone installation to view the feed on a screen and learn more about the area in general.
The Street Beacon installations also collect data from across the city’s payphones and uses an API to make that data available to the public and technology community to build new and novel applications. Specifically, each payphone location has sensors that collect data on pollution levels, pollen levels, noise levels, amount of use, traffic levels, and photos of the area. An API then makes this information publicly available. Example apps include a real-time pollen map for those with asthma, and a real-time “quiet” map for those seeking areas that are quieter.
Street Beacon had quite a bit of success, winning the ITP Payphone Hackaton, receiving some great press (seehere, here, and here), placing in the final 20 of the overall competition, and receiving some amazing feedback from the likes of Fred Wilson and Dennis Crowley.
All in all, it was a fascinating design project, one that all members of the team will remember for some time.
Payphone, consider yourself re-invented.
This post was written by Sam Slover, NYU ITP
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