by CAITLIN BONNAR
Locating and reaching an unfamiliar bus stop may not be a great source of anxiety for most transit riders, especially when making use of a visual navigation tool with GPS. However, for people with visual impairments, orientation and mobility can be a challenge, particularly when navigating unfamiliar areas. Technologies such as Blinput and multi-sensors for the white cane aim to reduce certain challenges involved with navigation for the blind, yet they are often standalone tools developed particularly for the blind and low-vision community.
So how can popular navigation apps such as Google Maps or OneBusAway achieve equal access for this population? Can they also improve orientation and mobility for blind and low-vision transit riders? These are questions that my research group at the University of Washington seeks to answer as we continue to improve the reliability and usability of the Seattle-born transit app OneBusAway. Recently, we launched a new feature called StopInfo in the iPhone version of the app that provides information about the location and physical landmarks of bus stops in Puget Sound, largely motivated by helping visually-impaired transit riders locate stops.
StopInfo (left) is accessible through Apple’s native screen reader, VoiceOver, and provides information such as stop position from an intersection, whether there is a bus shelter, what type of sign is present and how far from the curb, as well as what other physical objects (such as trash cans and benches) are around. For visually-impaired pedestrians using a white cane, advance knowledge of what landmarks are present at a certain bus stop can help them know what to feel for, while positional information can let them know approximately how far they should expect to travel from the intersection. But this information is not only useful to the visually-impaired. Information such as how well-lit the stop is might help people travel more safely and confidently at night. Displaying whether a stop is temporarily or permanently closed can also be useful for all people using the app.
One of of the more novel features of StopInfo is how the information itself is collected. While the starting information comes from King County Metro’s database, anyone using OneBusAway on an iPhone can add data that Metro doesn’t track. In particular, we hope that Seattle Transit Blog readers will help out – when you are looking at the arrival information for a stop on the OneBusAway iPhone app, tap the information symbol and you’ll land on the StopInfo page. There you can view, add ,or verify information. Logging in via a Google, Facebook, or Twitter account is only required to add free-form comments, but is helpful for the research group to see who is participating.
We hope to soon expand to other platforms for which OneBusAway is available, including Android and Windows Phone. We are currently in the preliminary stage of our study, and are working with visually-impaired participants to evaluate usefulness and design. If results look promising, we are looking to make this a permanent addition to the app, and make it available for other regions covered by OneBusAway.