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Inside New York’s Plan To Cover The City In Free, Super-Fast Wi-Fi

Goodbye pay phones, hello public screen-wrapped kiosks.

Instagram New York City’s nostalgic old pay phones while you can, because this fall, they’ll start disappearing across all five boroughs. In their place, tall, thin, screen-wrapped kiosks will line the streets. The pillars of technology, also known as Links, will not only have phone-call making capabilities, but will offer Internet browsing, phone charging, and emit super-fast Gigabit Wi-Fi to anyone standing within a 150-foot radius–all of it free of charge.

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Since the DeBlasio administration announced the project that will eventually blanket the city with 7,500 Links, last November, CityBridge–a consortium of companies that won the contract–has been working to ensure that the high-tech public service doesn’t feel forced. “We want this to feel like it’s a product made by New York City, for New York City,” said Colin O’Donnell, a partner at the technology and design firm Control Group, one of the members of CityBridge.

New York is a huge, diverse city that draws 54 million tourists a year. To ensure the Links don’t only cater to a subset of the city’s 12 million residents, who speak over 260 different languages, Control Group is using what it calls a “human-centered” design approach. “We want to reflect the diversity and interests of the city and fit in aesthetically and functionally with what people want,” explained O’Donnell.


As such, the development process for the software that will live on the Link centers around ethnographic research. “We have a robust learning plan to make this the best thing it can be for the people of New York,” said Rachel Lehrer, who is heading up the user research for Link with Control Group. Over the course of six months, Lehrer and her team plan on speaking to about 100 New Yorkers from diverse pockets of the city. To collect its data, Control Group is going directly to community organizations, including a high school for adults, Older Adult Technology Services, and the GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis), to name a few. Using a combination of in-depth interviews, observations, and surveys, Lehrer and her team will analyze how people might interact with aspects of Link. The overarching goal is to understand how people from different backgrounds, especially those on the margins of digital literacy who could most benefit from its services, can best experience the Link.

The research has begun with the most digitally marginalized, and will get more generalized as the project progresses. Lehrer and her team started with people who don’t have Internet at home or on their cellphones–people who depend on Wi-Fi for all their web browsing needs. “For these people, free Wi-Fi is huge,” explained Lehrer. One of the first things Lehrer studied with this group was how to communicate certain services to people who can’t read or don’t speak English. Her team laid out a few pieces of paper with about half a dozen different ways to represent particular concepts. What best depicts video calling, for example? Is it a FaceTime or Skype icon? What about a picture of a phone in front of a camera? The team learned that there are trade-offs with using third-party logos, even though they carry brand recognition. And while research showed that people who can’t read understand best with pictures, that model doesn’t work for the rest of the population. The solution will likely lie somewhere in between.

To get the finalized icon, Lehrer takes the research back to the developers, who adjust Link’s design based on the findings, their own intuitions, and other research on user design. “These learnings are informing where we’re at now, which is designing more refined visuals that will live on the tablet,” said Mike Clare, who is heading up user design for Link. The research, for example, led to an entire rethinking of the log-off experience. From speaking with those at all levels of digital literacy, it became clear that most people want an omnipresent button that allows someone to leave quickly and gives the next person the feeling of starting fresh, much like an ATM experience. That led the design team to entirely redo the log-off button, which originally hadn’t had such a prominent presence on the screen.


That iterative design process will continue for the next few months as the team refines the look and feel of Link, working like a constant testing feedback loop. “We’ve taken these learnings and those have informed those next round of designs, which we will then go and test at which point we will have a better idea of what the final outcome is,” explained Clare. As the software becomes more sophisticated, so will the testing, evolving from paper to tablet mock-ups. The things Control Group plans on testing will range from icon design to how to best explain that the service is completely free not only to people who don’t speak English, but to those who don’t believe that anything is truly free.

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Link will be advertising supported via Titan, one of the other companies in the CityBridge consortium. Currently–and astonishingly–New York City pay phones bring in $50 million in advertising revenue each year. CityBridge has promised at least $500 million over 12 years, and O’Donnell estimates the Links will bring in a lot more because of the benefits–better targeting, variability–that come with digital advertising.

In addition to adjusting the software to the behaviors of the test subjects, Control Group is also learning what people might find creepy about omniscient digital monoliths. To support video chatting, the booths will have a camera: how can Link ensure that people don’t feel watched? What about data collection? O’Donnell mentioned targeted advertising, which people accept as the paradigm on their personal computers. But what about on a public, government-operated device? There are some people that want easy access to personal information. Again, how does Link do that without feeling Big Brother-esque?

Control Group is still dealing with these issues, but so far has been surprised by how much personal information people are willing to input into the machines. Internally, they call it the “magic scenario.” “The magic scenario is people are cool with being recognized,” explained Lehrer. One of the subjects Lehrer interviewed described a scenario where he walked up to the machine and it would identify him and log him into all of his relevant social networks and other personal services. “You would think that’s a weird invasion of privacy,” explained Lehrer. “But it’s not, it’’s just the way he wants to use it.” (To be clear, this capability does not and may not ever exist. It’s just an interesting potential-use case.)


The physicality of Links have also been designed to fit into the lives of New Yorkers. “There’s a lot of cues that lead you to think of New York,” said O’Donnell. The tall, thin blocks look like mini skyscrapers. The facade of the Link is black and grey (very New York) and the lettering will come in Helvetica and Wordmark. “It’s a very New York aesthetic,” says O’Donnell. “Very municipal without being overly understated.” To avoid vandalism, the Links are made of ruggedized aluminum that makes it difficult to vandalize or write on with a marker. They’re also coated with a special paint that can be easily refinished if it gets hit by a car or damaged in any other way. “It’s really a product of the city,” said O’Donnell. “This should emerge from the sidewalk as if it has grown out of New York City.”

And, just like the city, the Links will change and evolve with time. The ethnographic research will continue after the first Links start lining the streets. Phone calls and Internet browsing are just the beginning. Once Control Group starts to see how people use the machines in the wild, they can adapt to those behaviors. The team sees local services as an obvious jumping off point. “We’re racing to get this out the door, but that’s not the finish line,” said O’Donnell. “It’s really the start.”

About the author

Rebecca Greenfield is a former Fast Company staff writer. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Wire, where she focused on technology news.

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