In January I set up the NYC Payphone Locator, seeding it with data released by the city’s DoITT (Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications). This dataset is filled with numerous errors and omissions. Payphones removed years ago still appear, while none of the hundreds of public phones located in subway stations, transit hubs, theaters, and other indoor locations are represented. The lack of indoor payphones does not surprise me — the city does not franchise those payphones — but I found the errors and omissions of outdoor phones puzzling. This map was used in the politicking of LinkNYC, the masturbationally self-serving dead-end program which promises to “replace” the city’s 6,000+ outdoor payphones with modern terminals offering free phone calls in the 50 states and free Wi-Fi.
I found the political buildup of LinkNYC puzzling, particularly the avalanch of rah-rah propaganda from leaders of the New York tech community, some of whom never read a page of the RFP yet offered praise for LinkNYC at the request of the Mayor’s office.
Not having a stomach for the personal indignities of politics I turned my focus instead to the more intriguing idea of cleaning up the map to create a realistic view of how many payphones really exist in New York and how evenly they are distributed. I evaluated several web-based mapping applications which might allow anyone to edit or comment on the status of a payphone that appears on this map.
Two months ago I issued a plea for contributors. It took all of those two months until someone — I’ll call him Richard, because that’s really his name — contacted me to express interest in making some corrections. It took only this one person to get me motivated again. I’ve made no secret of my appreciation for how much this wide-ranging correspondence with Richard means to me, though I’ve also been dogged by sickness and semi-serious injury since January.
Having never settled on a publishing platform I had to revisit the problem of how to do this. Certainly there is no need to reinvent the wheel or start from scratch. At first I imagined hacking together a WordPress map plugin with a “user submitted content” plugin but I just could not find a clear path to make that happen in a way I could efficiently manage. I set up Mediawiki with its maps extensions but found it too thorny for normal people to use.
After purchasing and implementing one disappointing WordPress plugin after another I finally discovered Ushahidi, an inspired open source application developed for the purpose of interactive mapping, or “crowdmapping”, to use the buzzword. Originally intended for use in tracking disaster situations in real time Ushahidi has been adapted for other purposes, including election auditing, sexual harrassment tracking, and now payphone locations.
I was enamored of Ushahidi from the get-go but considered it prudent to explore other options. I feel strongly about keeping my web work self-hosted, and at first I also thought it would be efficient to keep this project within the WordPress Multisite install I so painfully implemented last year.
After the disheartening trial and error (emphasis on error) journey through the world of Premium WordPress Plugins I looked outside of that content management system, tepidly exiting the self-hosted realm. There was Wikimapia, Here.com’s impressive Map Creator, Google’s Map Maker, Openstreetmaps, the list goes on. Wikimapia and HabitatMap (another highly impressive product were the closest looking setups to what I had in mind but neither explicitly allow self-hosting, and most all of them would likely have issues with me uploading 6,000+ locations.
In the end all roads led to Ushahidi, which I intend to use for other projects. I expect to apply a similar interface to the USPS Mailbox Locator, updating it with latest data and making that gnarly site a little less hideous to look at.
Google’s StreetView is an obvious go-to resource for this endeavor. Bing’s Streetside imagery is frequently superior. Either of these free services offers the ability to drill down to detailed imagery of sidewalks and curbs, and Google’s Streetview even offers the ability to go back in time, proving that payphone(s) really did exist at certain spots, and that some of them have in fact been gone for years.
Neither of these imagery services are 100% foolproof for determining if a payphone has been removed. Phones contained within advertising enclosures are easy to spot but relatively tiny clamshell payphones are often obscured by trucks or buses. Another element of error is that a lot of city blocks have not been “Streetviewed” for years — though Bing’s Streetside is often times more current. Sometimes you just have to visit a location for yourself, as I’ve done a handful of times. It would be awesome if all of New York City just looked out their window and reported in on whether these payphones still exist but on an Internet of twerks and tweats a project like this cannot expect to gain that kind of traction.
The NYC Payphone Locator as it is now known is not limited to New York City. If you know where payphones are in your town anywhere in the U.S. feel free to add them by clicking the SUBMIT A PAYPHONE button and start by finding the city nearest you. It’s all NYC data for now because no large city that I know of has issued an official report of its payphone population.
If you want to report that a phone is gone then all you have to do is leave a comment to that effect and I’ll remove it when I get a chance. Folks like Richard, who want to get under the hood and do things like move location markers to precise spots on the map, add pictures or color commentary, and whatever else are also welcome. You are invited to CONTACT ME for specifics about account creation.0