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Mobile app for visually impaired could improve GPS accuracy

A project at Perkins School for the Blind aims to help people with vision loss easily find bus stops -- but it could also enhance GPS accuracy for everyone.

Slight left at cedar fence. Right on alleyway, between restaurant with covered patio and flower shop. Destination is through green door on left.

Not like directions you've seen on your navigation app? They could get to that level of detail someday, thanks to a mobile app due to launch in September by Perkins School for the Blind, in Watertown, Mass. The app uses landmarks, or clues, that volunteers log in the app to map routes to bus stops for people who are blind or visually impaired.

But it could someday help other people, too, said Luiza Aguiar, director of products at Perkins Solutions, the training and technology division at the school.

Imagine, she said, using the Global Positioning System (GPS) technology on a smartphone to find an address in a neighborhood like Boston's North End, almost as well-known for its warren of crooked streets as for its Italian restaurants.

"We're looking for a specific restaurant. There are four doors in a row or a medical office building. GPS gets you to the general location, but it leaves you off in the 30-to-50-foot radius," said Aguiar, referring to the area the technology often can't get a close-enough read on to display on a map. "That's a problem that sighted and nonsighted people have."

Sharpening GPS accuracy

The Perkins app aims to extend the routes GPS provides to within a few feet of a bus stop. That will get people who are blind or visually impaired close enough so that a bus driver knows to stop to let a passenger on.

The general problem that we're solving is something that we've heard people both sighted and visually impaired cite as a problem, which is GPS accuracy.
Nick BonatsakisiOS developer, Raizlabs

Raizlabs, the mobile app development firm that's building the app for Perkins, is incorporating technology to collect information from people who can identify things like benches or telephone poles that flesh out the routes to a destination. This time it's a bus stop, but crowdsourcing can be used in the future to pinpoint all sorts of locations, said Nick Bonatsakis, a Raizlabs developer who is working on the app and who is legally blind.

"The general problem that we're solving is something that we've heard people both sighted and visually impaired cite as a problem, which is GPS accuracy," Bonatsakis said.

A good test case is the bus stop outside Raizlabs' office, in Boston's Financial District. The neighborhood is packed with tall buildings; GPS, which operates by line of sight, doesn't work well.

"You'd probably get to the general vicinity," Bonatsakis said, "but the GPS is fairly useless once you're within about a block."

Community helping community

The key to closing the gap is data, he said. The more people who volunteer clues and the more clues there are, the better the app will be at identifying routes -- not just to bus stops, Bonatsakis said, but "pretty much anything you're trying to find as a traveler in a city."

Perkins chose crowdsourcing as a way to quickly build the app and release it for general use, said Bill Oates, general manager and vice president at Perkins Solutions. The idea impressed Google.org, Google’s philanthropic group, which gave the school $750,000 in funding for its app project, part of a challenge to nonprofits to help make life easier for people with disabilities. A few years earlier, Google had bought Waze, a popular app that uses crowdsourced data to find the quickest routes to a destination.

Crowdsourcing was also a way for Perkins "to see how effective we could be at recruiting and incenting folks to be part of this community," Oates said.

Universal appeal

Raizlabs may do that incenting by turning the clue giving into a game. But for now it is focused on building an app that's easy for both visually impaired and sighted people to use. The concept is called universal design, something that developers often don't incorporate into software geared toward people with disabilities, Bonatsakis said.

"They don't really put a lot of effort into making the experience for sighted people delightful and elegant," he said. "We want people to go in there and leave clues, but we also want the consumption side of things to be great."

Oates and Aguiar said another way of further enhancing GPS accuracy would be to layer on other emerging technologies, such as beacons -- sensors that broadcast signals -- and plugging into the device-connected internet of things.

"We do believe that this is just the beginning of helping to solve this problem not only locally here but taking this to other cities and partnering with other folks," Oates said.

Read about the process that kick-started the bus stop app at Perkins School for the Blind.

Next Steps

GPS follows path to supply chain

Michigan CIO experiments with GPS

GPS helps map a route in the museum

This was last published in August 2016

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Has a lack of GPS accuracy on your navigation app steered you wrong? Tell us about it.
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While our GPS systems work fairly well, they lack both logic and ongoing support. Searching for a business located directly across the road, GPS sent the driver around an entire town to arrive on the opposite side of the road ten minutes later. Traffic alerts are rarely given in real time, recovery from driver errors is inadequate and it struggles to find the "best" route, often sending vehicles to distant toll roads rather than spending a few minutes on side streets. OTOH, paper maps were far worse....
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