Founded in 2006, the United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development, in partnership with the Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs, and World Enabled, put together the SmartCities4All toolkit. The toolkit is one of many attempts to engage the wider urban community to use technology in a way that makes smart cities accessible for the differently abled.
The integration of technology in planning ‘smart cities’ has gained popularity from Barcelona to San Francisco. In urban planning, accessibility is constantly brought to the table as a bargaining chip as a matter of social inclusion and also mobility in public space. Making cities more accessible, however, becomes a bit more complicated when considering people of different abilities.
The rise of open-source mapping (OSM) in the early 21st Century has encouraged an onslaught of initiatives that use technology to reappropriate city mapping and place it in the hands of city dwellers themselves. In doing so, many initiatives have addressed accessibility for the differently abled in mapping cities. Google Maps, the biggest of these corporations, introduced a wheelchair accessibility option for the differently abled in seven cities just last month.
Beyond the efforts of big corporations such as Google, here are five on-the-ground initiatives that sprung from the life experiences of differently abled individuals and have been working to fill in the gaps in city mapping and planning to accommodate those that are differently abled.
It took Spanish-native Josep Esteba 20 years traversing city streets before he thought of developing a map that catered towards individuals who are differently abled. After becoming permanently bound to a wheelchair in a car accident, Esteba found it fairly difficult to navigate cities that he was not familiar with.
In 2012, he founded Mapp4All, which is a free smartphone app that allows those that are visually-impaired, hard of hearing, and physically disabled to get a better understanding of the spaces they want to access in cities before visiting them. Users can check whether a restaurant has bathrooms on the ground floor or menus in braille, for example, or if a music venue has a ramp.
Like a large number of initiatives, Mapp4All is crowdsourced, meaning its database is updated by its users. The app was downloaded in 3,000 cities and is available in nine different languages.
2. Chi Safe Path
Public transportation in the United States is slowly but surely becoming more accommodating of individuals with disabilities. The most popular modification is equipping buses and subways with ramps and elevators. This, however, has not eliminated how hostile architecture often makes it difficult for individuals that are hard hearing, visually impaired, or wheelchair-bound to navigate cities.
In Chicago, and in spite of the improved accessibility features and resources like Easy Access Chicago that make it easier to navigate the city, resident Steve Luker still faced difficulty moving around the city’s streets on his power chair. Luker struggled significantly with the lack of tactile pavements – or pavements altogether in some cases – and everyday objects obstructing his path. To help himself and others navigate the streets of the Windy City, Luker founded the app Chi Safe Path.
Similar to Map4All, Chi Safe Path relies on crowdsourcing to build the maps’ database. In partnership with the City of Chicago, residents can also call in to report poorly constructed pavements or other problems with infrastructure that might inhibit individuals that are differently-abled.
The work that Chi Safe Path is committed to is also relevant in other cities like Seattle, where construction constantly changes how the differently abled navigate their city. In one instance, Jason Struksma, a visually impaired Seattle resident, reported he was constantly shoved and yelled at by construction workers since he couldn’t find his way through makeshift pathways – or the lack of them – as the workers obstructed his path.
3. AXS Map
Jason DaSilva, like others who are differently abled, has always struggled getting around his city. New York City, where DaSilva lives, is not exactly an easy city to traverse – especially for those that are differently abled. Due to his multiple sclerosis, DaSilva began to realize how difficult it was to navigate The Big Apple. In an interview with CityLab in 2016, he said that nine out of every 10 businesses were inaccessible to him as an individual who was differently abled.
DaSilva’s illness began to get worse at around the same time he bought his first iPhone, which he thought would make navigation easier. He resorted to platforms like Yelp – to little avail – for information on places that had accommodating facilities. As a result of these experiences, he began developing AXS Map in 2012, an online platform that allows users to rate businesses that have facilities like ramps or other facilities, similar to Map4All.
The idea behind AXS Map is not just to focus on adapting businesses and public spaces to different forms of mobility, but also to cater to individuals with a wide range of disabilities. DaSilva is also working to integrate augmented reality technology into the maps, which will allow users to view businesses and spaces in the city right from their home to get a better picture – quite literally – of whether or not they’ll be able to visit or just to get a feel of the area.
Across the pond in Belfast, Northern Ireland, there is a wheelchair rolling around on the streets, collecting data on pavements, roads, and road obstructions and feeding them into a server way up high in the cloud. The man with a plan behind the human-less wheelchair is Noel Joyce and he has a different approach to improving roads and urban infrastructure to become more accommodating to differently abled individuals.
Unlike many of his predecessors, Noel Joyce didn’t think it was up to the wider community to fill in the gaps around where cities were or weren’t failing differently abled individuals. Bound to a wheelchair as a result of an unfortunate accident himself, Joyce decided to take the process of data collection into his own hands.
After living in Shenzhen, China, for work, Joyce realized how easy it was to navigate city streets because the roads were very well paved. When he returned to Northern Ireland, he decided to start Parvanu, which collects as much data as possible on hindrances in roads and urban infrastructure. The wheelchair, equipped with a number of sensors, collects the data, sends it to the cloud, and creates a map of the city.
Joyce plans to manufacture the machinery needed for the project to take flight and sell it to companies, but he also plans to maintain ownership over the data and the IP. Through this process, he hopes to not only familiarize the wider public with Parvanu, but also to set a standard for government to accommodate differently abled individuals. In other words, he wants to make it that policy-makers have no option but to meet these standards to be able to call their cities inclusive and accessible to all.
5. Accessible Routes from Crowdsourced Cloud Services (ARCCS)
There are approximately 1.2 million wheelchair-bound individuals across the United Kingdom, and researchers believe that number is increasing as the population ages. For these individuals, using a wheelchair in environments that do not accommodate impaired navigation puts them at high-risk. Due to the lack of proper infrastructure, wheelchair-bound individuals often suffer from shoulder and arm-related injuries as well as long-term loss in function of these body parts.
Rooted in making navigation easier for individuals who are wheelchair-bound, the Accessible Routes from Crowdsourced Cloud Services (ARCCS) came out of the University College London. The idea behind the four-year project, led by Professor Stephen Hailes, is to integrate automated data collection with IoT to create a system that provides wheelchair-bound individuals with suitable navigation information without putting them at physical risk.
The research team placed low-cost sensors on wheelchairs that in turn shuttled anonymized data to a mobile phone in order to observe how the wheelchairs are used in navigation.Rather than relying on self-reported data, it automates the data collection process and helps differently-abled people navigate cities accordingly. ARCSS is different from its counterparts in that the idea behind the sensory data collection is to side-step the need to add physical objects that might obstruct other pedestrians.
The idea behind ARCSS and its data collection process is to provide city planners and government with a database that can be included in urban planning in the years to come to accommodate pedestrians both on foot and on wheelchairs.