For most people, using a tool like Google Maps is an adequate way to find walking or public transit directions. But for those who face mobility challenges, be it a disability or a temporary injury, it can be difficult to know where closed sidewalks, steep inclines, ramp curbs, or other obstacles may exist.
This is a problem that Hackcessible wants to fix. The new web app took home first place Wednesday evening at Hack the Commute, a hackathon put on by the City of Seattle and Commute Seattle that encouraged entrepreneurs to build solutions to fix the city’s transportation issues.
Hackcessible’s team members — Allie Deford, Nick Bolten, Reagan Middlebrook, and Veronika Sipeeva — came together last month at the initial Hack the Commute event after learning about problems faced by people with mobility challenges. Dr. Alan Borning and Dr. Anat Caspi of the Taskar Center for Accessible Technology at the University of Washington, one of many community members that participated at the event, helped the team understand what dilemmas people were facing.
“They started telling us about accessibility issues in Seattle and we settled on this idea of helping people with limited mobility get around the sidewalks,” Bolten said. “We were quickly hooked on the idea of contributing to the accessibility of the city. It presented such a huge opportunity to make a tangible improvement in the lives of members of an under-served community.”
Hackcessible, which qualified for Wednesday’s championship round back in March with two other teams, is a map that displays obstacles and elevation changes that may affect a person’s travel route. The team pulled sidewalk data from the City of Seattle, used Google Maps for elevation information, and utilized the OneBusAway API for bus stop information.
The app is designed primarily for wheelchair users and people using crutches; however, one of the team members found Hackcessible useful to avoid large hills downtown because of an injured foot.
“It presents people with a convenient way to access previously unavailable information that they need while planning their commutes,” Bolten said. “It is not uncommon for, for example, a wheelchair user to encounter unexpected construction or an intersection that doesn’t have a curb ramp. With an interactive application, they can plan to avoid such obstacles. In addition, the data types shown can be filtered, and it is easy to center on a bus stop or the user’s current location.”
The Hackcessible team, which won Kindle tablets, cloud computing credit for Azure, course credit from General Assembly, and a 6-month membership at Impact Hub Seattle, plans to do more user testing and continue developing the app.
Candace Faber, the event’s project manager and organizer, called Hack the Commute a “groundbreaking experiment in civic technology” that brought together people across government offices — including Mayor Ed Murray — private companies, non-profits, and the developer community who all wanted to build tools that help improve transportation in Seattle.
“It’s pretty rare to see government agencies be so supportive and hands-on in developing an event like this,” she noted.
Faber hopes the hackathon encourages city, state, and national organizations to improve their public datasets and make it easier for developers to build more apps. She added that Hackcessible, along with other ideas pitched at the event, has huge potential to fix a “really over-looked problem.”
“These are problems we weren’t really thinking about in earnest and it was great to see incredibly talented people from across the community come together and say, ‘we want a better way to understand safety, or we want a better way to see bus information, or we want to know when bike racks are full,'” Faber explained. “Now we can have those conversations and really start a community-based iteration process.”
Faber admitted that it can be tough to sustain important technology when a traditional business model doesn’t really exist. But that’s not stopping the Hackcessible team from developing their app after the event, and Faber thinks it shouldn’t be a roadblock for others, either.
“When you look specifically at the intersection of accessibility needs and people who take public transportation, that’s not a population anyone is going to turn a huge profit on,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean they should be overlooked.”