Trends In Mobile Accessibility: Artificial Intelligence and Smart Cities

The 7th M-Enabling Summit opened its doors to around 600 participants from 30 countries. The opening panel on Artificial Intelligence (AI) heard representatives of Microsoft, Amazon and Oath (the company coming out of the merger of AOL and yahoo) talk about the immense and exciting potential of AI. These included how Amazon’s Alexa is helping in speech therapy for autistic children, Microsoft’s Seeing AI and inbuilt accessibility features in Microsoft Office that make power point presentations automatically accessible, and how Oath’s human-AI collaboration is captioning thousands of videos per day.

But there was also a voice of caution from Steve Tylor, Director of Assistive Technology at Leonard Cheshire, a UK health and welfare charity: “We will never fix people’s ability or disability to use technology, unless devices start understanding or at least second guessing what the user wants to do. For this to happen though, it isn’t sufficient just to consult people with disabilities, but rather they must be involved in the design and development of such products and services because they will build in accessibility from the beginning in a way we could never think of otherwise.”

So the big companies see tremendous potential in AI. The disability community shares the positive outlook but also cautions that AI alone will not be the miracle solution.

The question to the panel and audience on Smart Cities was also thought provoking – do smart cities leave accessibility behind?

Commissioner of New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities Victor Calise opened the session with some insights on the challenges of making a city as big as New York smart enough to accommodate not only their 8 million plus citizens with and without disabilities, but a huge number of old and young tourists visiting every year. He also shared the struggles the city faced when trying to re-invent the pay phone or Emergency Call Boxes in an accessible way for both the blind and deaf community.

On the topic of universal access to information and emergency services, Betsy Beaumon, president of Benetech, explained how her company tries to improve the social services in cities by crowdsourcing and connecting information like free places in shelters, where to get help in case of domestic violence, available resources in times of natural disaster etc. Benetech tries to achieve this by creating an open infrastructure that allows many different systems to access the same data, and incentivizes the stakeholders to collaborate.

In time, IoT sensors across the cities and real time information will help in projects like the one initiated by Benetech and will render our cities smarter and hopefully more accessible. Real time information in particular has already found wide spread application in public transport and is rendering the navigation of cities much easier. But the availability of this information alone is not enough. Holger Dietrich from the German NGO Soziale Helden emphasized the need for making big data actionable. His NGO, which has created the popular Wheelmap app (which is also listed in GARI:, which maps wheelchair accessible places around the world, has gone the next step by creating an accessibility cloud, where they combine similar efforts all around the world and feed various maps of accessible places into one big system, so that users can access to get a comprehensive view of accessible places worldwide.

Two technological developments are essential in bringing all these trends to fruition: 5G and our trusted companion, the mobile phone. The rollout of 5G networks will provide both more detail and better geographical location information, explained John Bruns from the US network operator AT&T. And the mobile phone, a device that usually never leaves our side, has the potential to be that universal remote control allowing us to access these new technologies and services in a comfortable way. This means that it is even more important to enable every citizen, old and young, with and without disability, native speaker in the country or foreigner, to find a device they understand and that best meets their needs – a goal we have been working towards with GARI for 10 years now.

Dina Grilo from JPMorgan Chase & Co is convinced that smarter cities will be built on 5G, big data and artificial intelligence that all serve the individual. It will be these cities that business will want to settle in since an accessible smart city allows companies to tap into the talent of employees with disabilities who might otherwise not be able to work for them for purely logistical reasons, such as inaccessible public transport. But to make this a reality, we need to integrate people with disabilities into the development of smart cities from day one.

M-Enabling Summit 2018:

Source: Trends In Mobile Accessibility: Artificial Intelligence and Smart Cities

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