4 ideas from 4 continents: helping the blind navigate cities

(Karin Hildebrand Lau/Shutterstock.com)

Getting around a busy city can be stressful for anyone, but it is especially a challenge for the blind and visually impaired. New technologies are helping, however — as is new thinking among some city leaders. In this installment of Citiscope’s “4 Ideas From 4 Continents” series, we look at new ways cities are unlocking navigation for the blind.

Warsaw, Poland: Beacons show the way

People who are visually impaired often use talking GPS devices or smartphone apps to get around a city. But GPS won’t tell you exactly where a bus stop is — and it doesn’t work inside buildings, where GPS signals don’t penetrate. Finding one’s way in a city hall or municipal services office is especially difficult, with all the information counters and queues. How can you “take a number” when you can’t see the number?

With help from Polish startup Ifinity, the city of Warsaw aims to change that. It’s currently installing small location-marking beacons at bus stops, inside municipal offices, and in and around other public buildings. These beacons broadcast to a smartphone app that can read out a person’s queue number, or make the phone vibrate and even notify the driver when a rider’s bus stop is coming up.

In 2014, Warsaw implemented a pilot version of the project. Later the same year, the city of 1.7 million people was one of five finalists in the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge, winning a million euros to expand the beacon system across the entire city. And not just for people with sight loss: Warsaw thinks it can help tourists find their way around, provide theater and movie information, or even help shops transmit coupons to customers. Warsaw also is getting funding from the European Union to scale up. In the next three years, the city will install up to a million beacons.

[See: For the blind, shared streets and smartphone apps have downsides]

While the beacon technology is becoming more widespread, app design is especially important for the blind, explains Krystian Cieslak, chief marketing officer at Ifinity. For instance, an initial version of the smartphone app told users to go forward, back, right or left. But user testing revealed that giving ‘clock’ directions such as ‘three o’clock’ was more useful. App users make Tinder-like swipes to the left and right to select options, so they don’t have to see which buttons to press. “It’s many little things that at the end make one app usable and another one unusable,” Cieslak tells Citiscope.

But Rafal Kanarek, of the Polish Association of the Blind, says he’s too impatient to wait for talking smartphone applications, or even GPS signals outdoors. Kanarek, who is blind, relies on apps mainly to check transit timetables, and prefers to scope out a route before heading out. “Nothing will replace human beings,” he says. “And although I do really appreciate new inventions and modern technologies, one should use his or her common sense while using them.”

Japan: 3D maps for the blind

3D printed city maps put roads and walkways into sharp relief. (Geospatial Information Agency of Japan)

People who are blind or visually impaired have long used the raised dots of braille to read with their fingertips. And special printers can produce embossed maps and even architectural diagrams for the blind. Now, 3D printing, in which resin or other materials are deposited layer by layer to build up structures and figures, can open up whole new vistas.

In 2014, Japan’s Geospatial Information Authority (GSI) released a software program that can turn its data sets into 3D-printed tactile maps for any location in the country. The maps raise roads, railways, and walkways into sharp relief, roughly one millimeter high. In urban settings, one centimeter on a GSI map represents about 25 meters. A visually impaired person could use a printout of a certain neighborhood to develop a mental picture of it before venturing out into it.

The mapping authority envisions several applications for its program and data, including education. The maps could also be used in disaster-prevention training in notoriously quake-prone Japan.

Consumer access to this technology remains a hurdle, however. While the cost of a basic home 3D printer is dropping, it can still cost upwards of US$600. The materials needed to print a 6-inch-square map cost about 150 yen, or US$1.27, the Asahi Shimbun reports.

While it’s not clear if the 3D maps are widely used by visually impaired people, the GSI said in an email that it is working with universities and organizations for the blind to test and refine its program.

Nigeria: Ultrasound guides

Apps and maps are about helping people with sight loss find their way to things. But in urban settings, detecting and avoiding obstacles is another challenge, one often reserved for walking sticks or guide dogs. Researchers in Nigeria are working on a wearable device they hope can do better.

Engineers and medical researchers at Obafemi Awolowo University in the Nigerian city of Ife-Ife developed the two-part device, which they described in the journal Technology and Disability in 2013. One part is worn on the shoe and uses a small 9-volt battery; another is an earpiece. The shoe unit emits and receives ultrasonic chirps that the earpiece translates into beeps; the closer an obstacle, the higher the pitch.

Their setup gets around the limitations of other common tools, they wrote. A cane or walking stick only finds obstacles as far away as it is long. A guide dog leaves only one hand free. And other wearable electronic devices may not detect obstacles low to the ground.

The device under development in Nigeria isn’t quite market-worthy yet — it needs to be improved to sense drop-offs, holes, and stairs, says Abimbola Jubril, the study’s lead author. (Its US$150 cost also remains well out of reach of the average Nigerian.) But the device has been tested at a school for the blind in Lagos, Jubril adds. “We have not been able to commercialize it, but are still working to add other features.”

Denver, USA: Transit for all

A robust and reliable transit network like what Denver is investing in may be the best tool to help blind persons get around. (Arina P Habich / Shutterstock.com)

While all the technological advances are interesting, many advocates say there is nothing more important cities can do to help the blind get around than to get the basics right by investing in a robust and reliable network of public transportation.

That’s what Denver, in the Western United States, has been doing for more than a decade. In 2004, voters in the car-centric city decided on a US$4.7 billion transit expansion, funded in part by increased sales taxes. The growing FasTracks system includes new commuter-rail and light-rail lines, bus-rapid transit, and park-and-ride spaces at light rail and bus stations. Since then, one new rail line has opened, with several more to come in 2016.

“I’m kind of a fixed-route girl,” says Claudia Folska, a board member for the Denver Regional Transportation District, who is blind. Folska says reliable transit timetables are essential for a blind person’s meticulous planning process. She knows all her destinations for the day — when she has to get places, how she’ll get back, and often arranges a carpool with colleagues. “Sometimes I ride with people to the light rail, and that’s the best — there’s no traffic on light rail.”

Since 2003, the transit agency has had a free travel-training program that teaches older adults and those with disabilities how to get around on public transit independently. In 2013, the RTD added automated bus-stop announcements that tell bus riders when the next stop is coming up, based on real-time location tracking.

When a city takes pains to accommodate people with sight loss, Folska says, it becomes better for everyone. “It becomes more reliable, and safe, and consistent, and predictable,” she says. “Everybody has the ability to live to their full potential.”

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Grace Chua is an award-winning journalist who covers science and the environment, from national climate change policy to community anti-littering projects.   Full bio

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