How tech is transforming mobility for vulnerable and less abled people.

Greetings from Canada! I seem to be making a habit of travelling to extremely cold places at the moment…

I came here to run a workshop that’s looking at how digital wayfinding services could help people navigate and explore parks. One of the key aspects that I wanted to find out more about was how the visually and mobility are using technology to help them navigate complex and ever changing physical and natural landscapes. My thinking was that if we could design an app or web service that provided these communities with easy to use and confidence building information, then it could work well for everyone. We tend to take these communities for granted and I really wasn’t prepared for the response we got….

On the plane on the way over (yes, I made the flight!) I boned up on a number of very interesting projects that are seriously looking at how new technologies could change the way visually impaired travellers go about their daily lives. One of the most interesting is the Microsoft/Guide Dogs project that has created location and user sensitive ‘3D audio soundscapes’ via a smartphone and bone conductive headset. This project, based in the UK, piloted some pretty amazing tech – it allowed users to get from Reading to Paddington using the headset and a series of beacons and WIFI routers. Similarly, the RLSB Youth Forum and ustwo’s Wayfindr project uses available smartphone tech, an easy to use app and bone conducting tech to guide young people around indoor environments using ibeacons – something which is very tricky when using GPS inside. The product gives people the confidence to get out of their homes and explore the city, get a job or meet friends – when they’d normally experience barriers. This use of (relatively) cheap technology just shows what’s possible and how the city can become a guide rather than a hindrance. This has to be exciting stuff, right?

It soon occurred to me that the vision-impaired are starting to adopt smartphone technology for navigation. iOS, for example, has the remarkable VoiceOver which allows for the content of a website of an app to be read back to the user. The use of GPS allows users to locate themselves and apps such as Google Maps to tell them where they are and what’s around them. Projects such as GuideDots are taking this a step further and using crowd-sourced data from Facebook Places and FourSquare to help locate people and provide them with contextual information – such as weather their friends are already there (inspires confidence) and whether there may be barriers to movement on their route (app users can actually report barriers such as badly placed bins and benches). It actually made me think about my place in transportation and how the tech we produce could be serving people better.

So at the workshop I told my embarrassing story about missing my flight. This got us all thinking about how much we rely on this information as sighted and able bodied traveler, but made us think even more about how poor data and service could impact on the visually impaired, deaf and mobility impaired communities. A lot was the answer. So we spent a good chunk of time talking about what information these communities rely on – if a bus stop is accessible, if there’s a toilet nearby, if there is a busy road and whether there is an accessible crossing. Then on top of that came the real time data – bus departures, changes of gates at airports. For those with disabilities, this stuff really matters.

One of our guests, a visually impaired lady with the most gorgeous guide dog (see below), was a veracious user of smartphone and app technology. It took her a good ten minutes to tell us all about the apps she uses and how they help her life. She’s even thinking of getting an ibeacon for her dog! We also had the other side of the coin – a gentleman, also visually impaired with a guide dog, who doesn’t carry a phone but has a very simple GPS device. His argument was that smartphones are amazing, but many people still can’t afford them (VoiceOver is considered to be the best technology but only available on iPhones). So we still have to think about ‘traditional’ signage and how tech can add a layer of interaction, rather than replace it. We also talked about live maps that constantly update based on crowd-sourced information – including surface quality for wheelchair users, availability of charging stations for mobility scooters and routing that takes it all into consideration.

This dog is getting tech

This dog is getting tech

I came away buzzing and keen to look at how I could help develop new services that can cater for the less abled communities out there and also make a difference for the wider world. I’ve got some ideas which I’ll be sharing in later posts – most of them involving the ‘sharing’ economy – I’d love to develop the Uber of mobility apps.

If any of you work with any of the communities I’ve mentioned and think it would be worthwhile me speaking to them, feel free to get in touch or leave a comment below!


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