The Story of MobileQubes

This is the story of how it took three years to do something very simple in government — and lessons learned.

When Metro launched the Unsolicited Proposal Policy in February 2016, the newly founded Office of Extraordinary Innovation was keen on executing pilot projects to enhance the customer experience. Around this same time Metro CEO Phil Washington had announced expanding cellular service through the subway tunnels as an early priority. He did so because a lack of service was a safety issue and safety is priority #1 at Metro.

So when an Unsolicited Proposal came along from a company called MobileQubes for a network of mobile charger vending machines throughout the Red Line, the review team felt that giving customers access to grab and go power for their phones could also have a safety benefit. Not only would people have convenient access to the power their phones need, but they would also have another option besides the dangerous and illegal act of breaking open our electrical panels and loitering.

The initial review team found that there was enough potential benefit to warrant a pilot. All we would have to do is sign a deal and plug in a few kiosks. Easy, right?

No project is easy

Based on state law, this project, though revenue positive, required a procurement. As a general rule, procurements can be time-consuming. Though Procurement Departments are underappreciated for their role in moving literally thousands of projects, procurements come with a lot of rules, procedures and paperwork.

Given everything on Metro’s plate and OEI’s ambitions of developing P3s and launching New Mobility pilots, this project was not the top priority. Like many ideas before it, having to do a procurement could have been a decisive blow. But we had a company that was interested in paying us money to put their kiosks throughout our system, and we felt customers would benefit. OEI had a responsibility to its new process and the customer to do the procurement to get the project done.

Nevertheless, asking other companies if they were willing to give us more money than MobileQubes to offer our customers on the go charging felt counter-intuitive. It felt like the company was offering us a popsicle and as it was melting all over their hands, we were deciding to ask everyone else if they had a bigger, better popsicle.

But some tools make some projects easier

In most circumstances, government cannot pick its dance partner for a project without a competition. But it can lease space to whomever it pleases. For a pilot of this size, this was a welcome development. Because we could do a lease, we didn’t have to do a procurement after all.

Finding Space; Getting Sign Offs

Now that we had decided a lease made this project more feasible, we needed to figure out where these kiosks should go.

Casual transit users may believe that there is plenty of space for a small kiosk in any of our Red Line stations, but this is not the case. Regrettably, finding space to put a customer amenity is harder than it seems and much of the most useful space is already spoken for.

We needed a place with access to power and where people would see the kiosk, but where it wouldn’t impede the flow of patrons in daily operations or evacuation scenarios. The kiosk would ideally be within view of a security camera and had to be away from station artwork. The kiosk should be accessible, Underwriter Laboratory certified (a 3rd party industry safety standard), and the line for the kiosk should never interfere with lines for the TAP Vending Machines.

We did a site walk with nine departments. Real Estate was co-lead. We were told by two departments that the kiosk came in conflict with the Rail Design Criteria and were asked if the company would be willing to redesign their kiosk. We resisted and struck a compromise.

The Compromise

The kiosk may not fit our design guidelines, but wouldn’t it be better than the abandoned payphone corrals?

There was consensus on this idea, so we developed plans to remove the old payphones, cover the recesses with stainless steel, and move the receptacle and wiring forward into new paneling.

Figuring out who at Metro was involved in the removal of the payphones was a challenge, but once we found out, we learned that after repeated notices to remove them, the payphones were still here. No one I spoke with seemed to remember the removal protocol, but the general sentiment was that the payphone company, if it still existed, had been negligent and wouldn’t object to their removal.

We also checked the as-built drawings to make sure that the kiosks wouldn’t be sharing a circuit with anything safety sensitive – the last thing we wanted was a kiosk short-circuiting our subway. The site condition varied from the as-built drawings, so we went to the weekly “Track Allocation” meeting to ask Operations for personnel from Traction Power to verify the circuits at the old payphone locations. We barely knew what to ask, but Electrical Engineering supported us and after a few site visits and a few unfamiliar forms, Traction Power was able to map which outlets went to which circuits. We updated the drawings and made sure there was power to each of the sites.

With the updated drawings, after about two months of design, we had beautiful drawings of the stainless-steel paneling with electricity built in.

The Problem

The cost was three times our budget.

No Plan B

With no Plan B, we were now in a place where one project management idea – conduct thorough outreach, be flexible and make compromises to make sure the project was “the right project” – was in conflict with another – “keep it simple.” We were back to square one.

We explored alternatives and decided that for the pilot to be feasible, we had to scrap the plans to use the old payphone locations. Not all internal stakeholders were happy, but enough were willing to engage to find the least disruptive and still workable locations. We chose fewer overall locations, only one of which required an exposed conduit – a pet peeve of any designer.

We sent the new sites around to all departments, and with minimal objection, asked Traction Power to help us again without going back to Track Allocation meetings. After a couple weeks, we had not only verified the circuits, but gotten the existing twist locks replaced with GFCI receptacles. The kiosks were now plug-in ready.

Crossing the Finish Line

We spent a few weeks with Real Estate and Legal fine tuning the lease to make sure that the kiosks had a reasonable standard of uptime and that Metro was not liable for vandalism. We learned of and disclosed other plans to offer other charging options in the near future. We worked through some last-minute issues regarding accessibility, tamper-proofing and operational responsibility. We then notified MobileQubes of everything and set an install date.

The lease was signed. The kiosks were installed based on a detailed day-of plan. And now three years after an unsolicited proposal was received you can get grab and go power at select Red Line stations for the next two years.

Will customers like it? We hope so. If not, at least we will know for sure.

Reflections and Lessons Learned:

Connect people to ideas through projects

As an agency and as individuals, we must continue to believe we can take on projects and try things that drive change, even if the road is more difficult than anticipated. And when we do so, we need to tell the story of the projects and the ideas behind it so that we can drive home the connection to the bigger picture — and get better at getting things done at the same time. Many projects in public agencies don’t get done simply because people do not believe the mountain, so to speak, can be climbed and that there will be too much institutional resistance. Making projects easier to do, and broadcasting the successes and lessons learned, is critical.

Embrace the role as Project Manager

Project Managers (PMs) need to manage with intention and purpose, rather than assuming a project will get done. They need to create a work plan with steps towards implementation and get feedback into that plan from partner departments. That way, the PM is not the only one thinking through the sequence of steps. PMs must set regular meetings and firm deadlines and goals. PMs must document disagreements and drive their resolution in writing.

This all may seem obvious, but during this process it appeared that the project would be as simple as plugging in vending machines. And it seemed that the project had enough in it for everyone that each department would take their small piece and run with it, especially after the CEO had signed off.

Through this process mentors had some great advice: “there is no such thing as an easy project” and “every project dies a thousand deaths.”

A good project manager can keep the project alive, good relationships can handle stress and a team needs to be actively bought in to the big picture. PMs need to get everyone focused on the outcomes and enable people to see their role in making the project successful. They need to bring clarity to confusion. PMs cannot afford to underestimate any project or fail to identify and fill knowledge gaps. They must prioritize the project and gain participation from others, which means recognizing when a project isn’t being prioritized without perpetuating it further.

Work through complications off-line

Throughout this project there were numerous valid criticisms and competing interests. Every department had a different approach to serving customers. This complexity needs to be managed and the energy needs to be channeled toward decisions and actions. PMs need to break the issues down, resolve them and communicate a clear direction.

Keep it simple; have a plan; have a back-up plan

Not having a Plan B when the stainless-steel paneling was too expensive caused, at minimum, a six-month delay. Not knowing what to do or what our next step was also caused substantial delay. While compromising to make the project the right project seemed like a good idea in the short-term, it was naïve. The scope creeped to solve a problem that was different than the one the project was positioned to achieve. This project was about powering cell phones, not beautifying the station. Intersectionality and holistic thinking is important, but you have to know where to draw the lines around the project so that it can be communicated and get done.

Communicate and feel the why of your project

More than anything, this project demonstrated how critical skilled project management can be. Buy in is not just for everybody else, it starts with the PM. And the more Unsolicited Proposals we see, the clearer it becomes that for the project to be successful, it needs to address a real problem and have a champion capable of carrying it forward. If you don’t care about your project, why should anyone else?

Celebrate successes

We did many things right in this project – it did become a reality after all. We made some tough decisions. We genuinely engaged and tried to honor the concerns and feedback of other departments. We let people do their jobs. We embraced that ambiguity and tried in good faith to solve problems. We had to find a balance between following rules and breaking rules, accounting for people’s concerns and asking for forgiveness.

In the end, the sky didn’t fall down and the project got done.

When the project was complete, we made sure to tie up loose ends and thank everybody profusely. It was a team effort.

Do better next time

Until next time!


4 replies

  1. Fascinating. Thanks for going into such detail about what it took. Even after reading, I’m sure I have no clue about all the different pieces that work behind the scenes to keep everything running smoothly each day, before you start trying to innovate, improve and do new things. Kudos to those involved, and thanks for this detailed story!

    • Hi,
      Thx for the question! They are not plugs, but grab and go charger battery packs. Company reports show that rentals and sales have been healthy. Metro will consider this and other factors next year as we approach the end of the two year lease term. At that time we will evaluate the pilot and determine whether to keep the locations the same, add, or remove kiosks.

      -Nolan Borgman, Manager, Office of Extraordinary Innovation