At a New York Tech Meetup event on Dec. 4, Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued a challenge to attendees via video message, the latest attempt by city leadership to enlist citizen participation in technology initiatives. “Re-Own the Phone,” Bloomberg beckoned, asking for ideas on how to re-invent payphone sites and their surrounding enclosures.

In recent months, Government Technology has reported on different NYC pilot projects aimed at injecting modernity into its dwindling payphone inventory. Interactive smart screens featuring neighborhood-specific information now adorn some phone booths, while others now act as Wi-Fi hot spots.

City officials report that even though the current inventory of more than 11,000 payphones is substantially less than the 35,000 of the mid-1990s, they still provide a vital function to citizens in this largely digital world.

“While the widespread adoption of mobile devices reduces the overall need for payphones, not everyone owns a mobile phone and not everyone has connectivity at all times,” reads a press release issued by the city in announcing the “Reinvent Payphones” initiative.

Usage of New York City payphones surged during superstorm Sandy, when cell reception was severely impacted. The existing contract between New York City and a private contractor to operate the city’s payphones expires in October 2014.

“We’re asking our tech community for new takes on older technology, and inviting designs about how they might enhance the vitality of our public spaces,” said Information Technology and Telecommunications Commissioner Rahul N. Merchant.

The city is promoting the challenge at several local universities, hoping to inspire participation from students and the academic community. Prototype applications, due Feb. 18, 2013, will be judged based on several criteria: connectivity, creativity, visual design, functionality and community impact.

More information about the challenge is available on the Reinvent Payphones website.

Editor's note: This story was updated on December 10, 2012 to include the YouTube video featuring Mayor Bloomberg. Photo from Shutterstock

Noelle Knell, Assistant Web Editor Noelle Knell  |  Managing Editor

Government Technology managing editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of marketing and communications experience, writing about public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she graduated from the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and @GovTechNoelle on Twitter.