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Crowdsourcing App Helps Blind Find Their Bus Stop

July 17, 2017

Imagine being lost and unable to find the nearest bus stop.

Now imagine looking for that same bus stop as a person who is blind.

“If there are no sighted people available to guide you,” said Luiza Aguiar, executive director of Perkins Solution. “You are out of luck.”

Someone with blindness typically relies on a smartphone’s voiceover and GPS functions to help them get around, but there’s a big catch: Devices with GPS usually get people within 30 feet of their final destination.

“But that last 30 feet, when you are blind, is the last 30 feet of frustration, because you can’t get to your precise goal,” Aguiar said.

Crowdsourcing the solution

To address the problem, Perkins Solutions, a division of the Boston-based Perkins School for the Blind, has built a technological solution, the BlindWays app, which Aguiar recently showed off at the New York Times’ “Cities for Tomorrow” conference. The iPhone app is assisting the blind and visually impaired in Boston, guiding them to the nearest bus stop.

Crucial to the app’s usefulness is help from the sighted. They are invited to also download the app and become contributors, reporting landmarks near a transit stop — a fire hydrant, a bench, a tree.

The landmarks offer tactile clues for the blind user. For example, they can include specific descriptions such as “thick metal pole” or “thin square pole.”

Through the public crowdsourcing, contributors have provided these sorts of clues for 5,200 of Boston’s 7,800 bus stops.

Expanding to other cities

The app’s creators want to replicate their efforts in other cities with Los Angeles and San Francisco governments having expressed interest, Aguiar said.

The app gives back a degree of independence and autonomy to blind users.

“Not having to rely on, you know, more segregated types of transportation, that’s really what visually impaired people want,” Aguiar said.

BlindWays’ crowdsourcing model is one that Aguiar believes will be part of a larger trend in technologies that help the blind and visually impaired, especially since almost everyone has a smartphone these days.

“We’re all getting more and more used to living in a mobile world and therefore, we could contribute anywhere and anytime to help a colleague or somebody in our community,” Aguiar said. “It’s a powerful model for us, I think we’re going to see more.”

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