As cities work to add technologies to improve residents’ lives and mobility, many are putting a renewed focus on inclusivity and equitable innovation distribution. Yet despite this inclusivity push, experts say people with disabilities remain an overlooked group, especially during city planning processes.
"Very few [cities] are thinking about all of their citizens, including specifically, citizens with disabilities," said James Thurston, vice president for global strategy and development at G3ict. "Cities are transforming the way they do services and businesses but they’re not thinking about the accessibility ... These enormous investments in technology that cities are making are actually making the digital divide for people with disabilities bigger, not smaller."
The United Nations launched G3ict, the Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies, in 2006 to serve as a digital inclusion and human rights advocacy organization. It partnered with the organization World Enabled, and together they last year released the Smart Cities for All toolkit, which provides guidance for cities wishing to become more inclusive of aging residents and people with disabilities when implementing programs and services.
The crux of the strategy is to incorporate greater accessibility into the planning process. Advocates stress the importance of keeping people with disabilities in mind from the start and throughout the entire process.
"If we're really going to have an impact on the digital inclusion of persons with disabilities in cities around the world, we've got to somehow infuse accessibility and inclusion into the innovation process," Thurston said.
Difficulty with obtaining services and getting around a city can cause people with disabilities to not venture out into the world, and consequently, feel isolated. That problem is present enough on its own, but even more so when municipal innovations omit considerations for people with disabilities and make them feel like they can't keep up with the rest of society.
"Society is set up for somebody to get in a car, drive on the highway and get to a business," said Jennifer Brooks, program manager with Tampa Lighthouse for the Blind. "Not a lot of thought is on individuals who can't utilize that vehicle, on trying to make the city accessible."
The vast majority of tech innovation occurs in the private sector. Cities themselves often don’t have the capability to produce such advances on their own, but they can partner with stakeholders that do have ample resources. In addition to launching completely new ideas, partnerships also work when tweaking and modernizing existing services to accommodate underserved populations.
Lyft, for example, partnered with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's paratransit service in 2016 to offer on-demand rides to people with mobility challenges, which allowed users to order rides in real-time instead of having to book a day in advance. Tallahassee, FL is piloting its own version of that style of ride-sharing program.
Columbus, OH has partnered with the Central Ohio Transit Authority to create an app that helps people with cognitive disabilities get around the city. The city's current paratransit program "doesn't provide a tremendous amount of flexibility for the end user," said Brandi Braun, deputy innovation officer for the city of Columbus. "The app will give someone with a cognitive disability the freedom to navigate the city independently."
Earlier this month, Microsoft released a free iOS app, Soundscape, that helps blind and visually impaired people navigate cities by calling out roads, landmarks and points of interest into a user's headset. The 3-D audio makes it sound like the cues are coming from the direction of the landmarks. This presents a partnership opportunity for municipalities to assist Microsoft with adding to the map more points of interest, municipal services or upcoming events.
Innovations don't necessarily always begin as projects specifically for people with disabilities, either. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University developed an artificial intelligence-operated adaptive traffic signal system, Surtrac, that detects traffic and changes the lights accordingly instead of relying on pre-programmed light cycles. Pittsburgh piloted the system at dozens of intersections and found that traffic flowed better, but pedestrians initially weren't taken into account. The research team tweaked the system based on feedback and also developed a complementary app for people with disabilities to communicate with the system and receive more time to cross the street. The changes proved beneficial not just for people with disabilities, but for all pedestrians.
"Emerging technologies, like artificial intelligence machine learning, and virtual and augmented reality, are supporting improved solutions for people with a range of disabilities, and also for the population in general. We’re really trying to impress on cities to think about their technology investments and smart city programs that way," Thurston said.
One targeted innovation for which researchers at Ohio State University seek more partnerships is a road paint that reacts with specially-designed tips on canes for the visually impaired. The team is testing standard street paint with added light-converted oxides, which have the ability to convert one wavelength of light to another wavelength. "That sounds very exotic, but... the advantage in the application of assisting visually impaired pedestrians is to be able to sense that unique wavelength that comes out" with the specially-equipped cane, said John Lannutti, OSU professor of materials science engineering.
The Ohio State School for the Blind is testing the paint in some of its crosswalks, while a business called Intelligent Material continues work on the cane prototype. Smart cane users will get a signal when their device touches the paint, indicating a boundary that could be dangerous to cross. It helps because "navigation for blind and visually impaired users is a hazardous process," Lannutti said. "Right now [they] can enter a crosswalk and wander through either side of [it] and get in some trouble involving traffic."
"We hope that beyond crosswalks themselves we can generate guidance so blind or visually impaired users can go to a new location they’ve never been before and arrive safely and efficiently."
Professor of Materials Science Engineering, OSU
The light-converted oxides cannot be detected by sighted people, so one idea is to add them to black paint and mark portions of the asphalt on city streets. That would create a protective barrier, of sorts, that would alert smart cane users that they're drifting into a roadway or nearing a potential hazard. "We hope that beyond crosswalks themselves we can generate guidance so blind or visually impaired users can go to a new location they’ve never been before and arrive safely and efficiently," Lannutti said.
The paint could fill operational gaps where other mobility assistance options have glaring limitations. Standard GPS-powered mapping apps, for example, direct visually impaired users, but "GPS is not very accurate," Lannutti said. "A user can be at a bus stop but Google Maps won’t be able to tell them that. You can be on one side of street, in the middle of the street, half a block forward or half a block back. It’s not very effective because of the GPS inaccuracy." The reactive paint, however, provides very specific street-level markers to guide smart cane users.
Tampa Lighthouse for the Blind has partnered with the city of Tampa on a smart paint pilot, which is expected to launch in the coming months. "Together we have identified some areas where we can put this paint down, mostly in downtown areas," Brooks said.
Pilot participants will have to be "proficient mobility users who have the training and skills for street crossing abilities so we can make sure it's not a skill level that might be skewing the results," Brooks said. The early-stage testing thus far has been in controlled campus environments, but once the paint is laid down in downtown Tampa "we can then test it out in a real-life environment," she said.
Developers are still figuring out exactly how the smart cane will act when it encounters the reactive paint, but it will likely emit vibrations, instead of audio signals, so as not to interfere with the audio cues that the visually impaired take in from their surroundings. Such technology could eventually communicate with other connected devices. "Autonomous vehicles can, with the right type of networking, learn that a blind or visually impaired person is in a crosswalk and they can actually stop the vehicle," Lannutti said.
"There is a lot of innovation going on around smart cities and… technology solutions specifically for people with disabilities in urban environments," Thurston said. "There is a lot more work that needs to be done, but there is a lot of interest in doing that work."