For blind bus riders, a new app boosts independence

September 8, 2014

By Madeline Ken
NEW YORK, Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The app, called StopInfo, is integrated into a popular existing app called
OneBusAway that gives real time information on the location of city buses.

StopInfo adds details that help blind riders find the bus stop.

“When a user wants detailed information about a transit stop, he or she
touches a button and the system displays details, such as where the stop is
in
relation to street intersections, whether there is a bench and trash can,
what the shape of the sign pole is . . . This information can be read out
loud
for blind users of the phone, using VoiceOver mode,” explained Alan Borning
in email to Reuters Health.

Borning is a professor at the University of Washington. His graduate
students created the new application.

While StopInfo sources most of its information from the King County Metro
database, it also relies on information from community users, blind and
otherwise.
To make sure the information added by users is correct, the app uses a
voting system, where each submission counts as a vote. To be verified, a
submission
must have at least three votes and 75% of submissions must be in agreement.

StopInfo is freely available and runs on iOS (iPhone), Android, and Windows
Phone platforms, and also via SMS, interactive voice response, and the Web.

It’s been widely used, according to Caitlin Bonnar, one of the app’s
creators.

She told Reuters Health by email that StopInfo “is accessed, on average,
around a thousand times a day since we launched in late February, indicating
that
it is also used by the general population. We have received around 1,300
information submissions for 845 unique bus stops around Seattle since then.”

With StopInfo gaining in popularity, its creators recruited six middle-aged
users for a small study of how it affects the way blind people travel. Three
participants were completely blind; the others had varying levels of usable
vision. Four lived in Seattle suburbs, while two lived in urban centers.

The results, which will be presented at the Association for Computing
Machinery’s annual conference in October and are reported in the
Association’s Assets
’14 publication, show that StopInfo is generally helpful for blind riders
and can promote spontaneous and unfamiliar travel.

The study lasted about five weeks, during which participants were asked to
fill out web forms with details of 10 to 20 trips they took during that
period.

The participants were already skilled at traveling independently and using
smartphones, and so the researchers note that they may not reflect the
general
population.

Borning says participants, “found the system usable and the information
helpful . . . All participants said they would continue using StopInfo after
the
study.”

He and his students were most interested in three elements: usability,
independence and safety. Independence was particularly important, as this is
a constant
struggle for blind people and was rated as very important by participants.

The results suggest that the app supports independence. Participants said on
29 (38%) of their web forms that they would not normally have attempted the
trip they were taking and consulted StopInfo on 26 (89%) of these trips.

StopInfo did not significantly affect feelings of safety, however – and the
researchers fear users might feel vulnerable to mugging while using their
smartphones
in public.

In on-foot audits, the researchers found that the app’s information was 100%
accurate in nearly all categories. Jeff Switzer, of the King County
Department
of Transportation, told Reuters Health by email that his department has
worked with the creators “to put measures in place that can monitor the
system
and bring any data vandalism to their attention for follow-up and
correction.”

Although its companion app, OneBusAway, operates in several cities across
the country, StopInfo is currently limited to the Seattle area. Borning, who
was also involved in creating OneBusAway, feels that for now, StopInfo is
best kept as a pilot program. It needs to be evaluated over a longer period,
he said, “to see how useful it is for a larger number of people, to see
whether we can sustain participation in entering and verifying information,
and
to see how well it fits with transit agency operations.”

Marion Hersh of the University of Glasgow in Scotland, who studies assistive
technology and disability but was not involved in the new research, agrees.
She emphasizes the importance of standardizing the app across the transit
systems of different cities so that blind people can move between them
easily.
Ideally, the system would “work at all bus stops preferably worldwide,”
Hersh told Reuters Health by email.

Borning is optimistic about these kinds of tools. “We are in an exciting
time for supporting the independence of blind and low vision people – and
people
with disabilities more generally – using off-the shelf technology like smart
phones,” he said.

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