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Work / Perkins School for the Blind

BlindWays Uses Micronavigation to Increase Access to Transportation

Raizlabs partnered with Perkins School for the Blind to solve a real world problem faced by millions of people. BlindWays helps visually impaired commuters locate MBTA bus stops to travel with confidence and independence.

MBTA Bus Illustration

The Challenge

Since before Helen Keller attended, Perkins has provided children and young adults who are blind or visually impaired with the skills, education, and confidence they need to realize their potential.

In today’s modern world, the iPhone is an indispensable tool to do just that, using native accessibility features like Dynamic Type and VoiceOver screen reading. Specialized apps provide voice prompts to help navigate the city. But even in this age of persistent GPS, directions often fall short, guiding commuters to within 30 feet of a bus stop. Imagine waiting for a bus, only to have it zoom by, because you were standing at the wrong signpost. awarded Perkins a grant to develop a solution for this 30 Foot Problem using crowdsourced data. Our challenge was to close the GPS gap, making MBTA buses (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) accessible to everyone in the Greater Boston region.

Man standing near bus stop sign holding phone.

The Build

Research, prototype, field test, iterate.

The academic literature on transit, wayfinding, computer vision, crowdsourcing, and navigation for the visually impaired provided a broad foundation. But the sharpest insights came directly from users with visual impairments. One-on-one interviews helped us comprehend their everyday experiences with public transportation and strategies for navigating the world by cane.

We learned how important micronavigation is, using common street features like driveways, steps, fire hydrants, landscaping, and curb cuts to orient to the environment. This led to competing models to describe a bus stop by the physical landmarks surrounding it. Each time we hit the streets to test our prototypes with our blind collaborators, we refined how the sequence of clues help to precisely locate the bus stop. We also developed a parallel experience for volunteer tipsters to add these clues in an intuitive and engaging way.

Meanwhile, the engineering team integrated transportation agency data for bus stop locations and real-time arrivals. To meet our users’ accessibility needs, we optimized for Dynamic Text scaling, and fine-tuned raw data for naturalistic phrasing when read aloud with VoiceOver.

BlindWays App Screens and Strategy

From day one, Raizlabs totally embraced our design thinking approach. They understood the need to put accessibility first when building BlindWays and engaged our community in rigorous field testing.

Luiza Aguiar
Director of Products, Perkins Solutions, Perkins School for the Blind
Chris Hoogewerff
A User-Centered Approach to Solving Micronavigation for the Blind
We are thrilled to celebrate the recent coverage that resulted from a talk about design and accessibility by Chris Hoogewerff, one of our Product Managers. For those who didn’t catch it live at AltConf 2016, the full presentation is now available for...

The Outcome

After seven months of research, testing, and development, BlindWays hit the AppStore in September 2016 to the buzz of positive press.

Many community influencers and news sources, including the Boston Globe, spoke up about the impact of BlindWays and its effect on the community. In the first six months, the app captured upwards of 15,000 user-generated clues and now boasts a presence at over 8,000 bus stops in the Greater Boston Area, with more cities coming soon.

Technology + services
  • Device GPS
  • Fully accessible interface with novel modes of interaction
  • Framework for collecting crowdsourced data
  • Open API built atop the Django web framework serving both BlindWays and third-party applications
  • Fast, indexed, geolocation-based search for stops in the nearby powered by Elasticsearch
BlindWays Bus Map

Key Takeaway

Better Access to 8,000 Boston Bus Stops, Powered by the Community

BlindWays bridges the GPS gap for travelers with visual impairments. Crowdsourced clues bring them close enough to find the signpost with the sweep of a cane, and know that they’re in the right spot. BlindWays instills confidence, opening new routes for safe and independent travel.

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