Mapping wheelchair accessibility, how google could help

This month Google announced a new campaign to crowd-source information on wheelchair accessibility. It will be asking the Local Guides community of volunteers to begin answering simple questions about the wheelchair accessibility of places that appear on Google Maps. Google already crowd-sources a lot of information from volunteers. For example, it asks them to contribute photos, add reviews and validate the data its displaying to users of its mapping products.

It’s great to see Google responding to requests from wheelchair users for better information on accessibility. But I think they can do better.

There are many projects exploring how to improve accessibility information for people with mobility issues, and how to use data to increase mobility. I’ve recently been leading a project in Bath that is using a service called Wheelmap to crowd-source wheelchair accessibility information for the centre of the city. Over two Saturday afternoons we’ve mapped 86% of the city. Crowd-sourcing is a great way to collect this type of information and Google has the reach to really take this to another level.

The problem is that the resulting data is only available to Google. Displaying the data on Google maps will put it in front of millions of people, but that data could potentially be reused in a variety of other ways.

For example, for the Accessible Bath project we’re now able to explore accessibility information based on the type of location. This may be useful for policy makes to help shape support and investment in local businesses to improve accessibility across the city. Bath is a popular tourist destination so it’s important that we’re accessible to all.

We’re able to do this because Wheelmap stores all of its data in OpenStreetMap. We have access to all of the data our volunteers collect and can use it in combination with the rich metadata already in OpenStreetMap. And we can also start to combine it with other information, e.g. data on the ages of buildings, which may yield more insight.

As we learnt in our meetings with local wheelchair users and stroke survivors, mobility and accessibility issues are tricky to address. Road and pavement surfaces and types of dropped kerbs can impacts you differently depending on your specific needs. Often you need more data and more context from other sources to provide the necessary support. Like Google we’re starting with wheelchair accessibility because that’s the easiest problem to begin to address.

To improve routing, for example you might need data on terrain, or be able to identify the locations and sizes of individual disabled parking spaces. Microsoft’s Cities Unlocked are combining accessibility and location data from OpenStreetmap with Wikipedia entries to help blind users navigate a city. They chose OpenStreetMap as their data source because of its flexibility, existing support for accessibility information and rapid updates. This type of innovation requires greater access to raw data, not just data on a map.

By only collecting and displaying data only on its own maps, Google is not maximising the value of the contributions made by it’s Local Guides community. If the data they collected was published under an open licence, it could be used in many other projects. By improving its maps, Google is addressing a specific set of user needs. By opening up the data it could let more people address more user needs.

If Google felt they were unable to publish the data under an open licence, they could at least make the data available to OpenStreetMap contributors to support their mapping events. This type of limited licensing is already being used by Microsoft, Digital Globe and others to make commercial satellite imagery available to the OpenStreetMap community. While restrictive licensing is not ideal, allowing the data to be used to improve open databases, without the need to worry about IP issues is a useful step forward from keeping the data locked down.

Another form of support that Google could offer is to extend to allow accessibility information to be associated with Places. By incorporating this into Google Maps and then openly publishing or sharing that data, it would encourage more organisations to publish this information about their locations.

But I find it hard to think of good reasons why Google wouldn’t make this data openly available. I think its Local Guides community would agree that they’re contributing in order to help make the world a better place. Ensuring that the data can be used by anyone, for any purpose, is the best way to achieve that goal.

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