In the Smart City Apps Can Help and Hinder Disability

A Smart City Is an Accessible City.

A new breed of accessibility apps can make life easier for people with disabilities. They can also make it harder.

A group gathers on a Nashville street corner, some rolling in wheelchairs and others walking. They have arrived holding their smartphones and make friendly chatter while a coordinator helps them log in to an app. Dispersing in small groups, they examine restaurants, cafes, and shops, looking for features signaling that disability is welcome there: a parking sign with the International Symbol of Access, a wheelchair ramp, an automatic front door, a wide bathroom stall with grab bars, braille text, low-flicker lighting, glare-free floors, scent-free soap. The groups use the app to document and rate these features. Once submitted, the information accumulates in a database that others can use to find accessible locations.

The event is an accessibility “map-a-thon,” an effort to document features of the built environment through collective labor, and turn data collection and visualization into tools for disability activism. They take advantage of smart-city technologies, particularly geolocated databases of business listings, to share information that may otherwise be available through only word of mouth. A combination of Google Maps and what some users refer to as “disability Yelp,” such apps are helping improve information and access. But even as they make some things better, digital-accessibility maps are only as good as the data they contain. Bad ones risk making urban life harder, rather than easier, for disabled people.

Digital-accessibility maps are proliferating rapidly, thanks in part to the release of apps such as AXS Map, Access Earth, AccessNow, and Wheelmap. In the decade that I have been studying accessibility, I have come across dozens of these projects (and even started one of my own). Some, such as AccessNow and AXS Map, are carried out by and with their potential users: people who are disabled and who identify a gap in more mainstream mapping technologies. Others are supported by people with relationships to disability, such as family members or therapists, and still others by philanthropic start-ups and major technology companies, such as Google.

Digital-accessibility maps assume that crowdsourcing serves two purposes….

READ FULL ARTICLE (There’s so much more!): In the City, Apps Help and Hinder Disability – The Atlantic

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