• 10.12.12

Turning Old Phone Booths Into Digital Information Hubs

Just because you don’t need them to make phone calls anymore doesn’t mean that phone booths are totally useless–especially if you add a screen and some Wi-Fi.

Turning Old Phone Booths Into Digital Information Hubs

Phone booths: In our collective cultural consciousness, they’re time machines, places for superheros to emerge, or even just a quaint place where people used to make phone calls. In New York city, a company called City24x7 is giving phone booths an upgrade to make them relevant to everyone, including people who have fully charged cell phones sitting in their pockets.


Gone is the phone; in its place is a 32-inch iPad-like touch screen that lets users see real-time news happening around them, local events, transportation information, reviews of nearby bars and restaurants, promotions from local merchants, warnings of local environmental hazards, and more. Passersby can also quickly use the phone booth, which doubles as a free Wi-Fi hotspot, to notify the authorities of an emergency. And eventually, people will be able to use the SmartScreens to make Skype calls–perhaps a nod to the phone booth’s former life.

“We’re trying to use technology and new social media to inform, project, and revitalize cities,” says City24x7 CEO Tom Touchet.

The screen, which I previewed at the recent Meeting of the Minds conference in San Francisco, looks familiar to anyone who uses a smartphone; it’s filled with buttons that look like apps–and in fact, many of the services are based on real apps and available online services (restaurant reviews come from Google Places’ Zagat information, transportation data comes from real-time transit app Roadify). The difference is that the information is tailored to your exact location and available in one place. “It’s highly integrated. You don’t need to go to the Roadify website–all channels of the city are local to where you are,” explains Jeff Frazier, director of global public sector practice at Cisco IBSG (Cisco is also involved in the SmartScreen project).

The project is proving attractive to advertisers, who can send out highly specific messages. If one of the SmartScreens flashes a discount to a Starbucks around the corner, for example, it’s likely that a lot of people will take advantage. The city will get 36% of SmartScreen revenue once the project moves out of pilot mode.

City24x7 just finished a two-year pilot of the screens in NYC. It plans on rolling out 250 SmartScreens over the coming months. City24x7 is also in talks with approximately 20 other cities around the world. The pilot ran in New York, says Touchet, because it was furthest ahead with its digital roadmap. “A lot of what we do is with integrating open data, so it was wise for us to start in [New York]. A lot of cities are now at the same point.”

The phone booth SmartScreens are just the beginning. City24x7 is also making its platform available for smartphones and tablets. “The city should be able to use all sorts of technology and means so that your daily life is better,” explains Touchet. “It can push out one seamless message, interacting with [people] as consumers or citizens.”

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.