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Project Sidewalk brings awareness to inaccessibility

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Accessibility issues in the greater Seattle area can be painstaking to those are afflicted with physical disabilities. Wheelchair users have reported that deficiencies in the city’s geography such as uneven sidewalks, cracks in the pavement, steep or missing curb ramps, and other difficulties in getting around. Infrastructure flaws such as these can make daily travel uncomfortable and dangerous for those who rely on mobility aids.

To address the widespread problem of inaccessibility, a group of UW researchers has been developing Project Sidewalk, a web application that creates accessibility data by allowing the general public to practice civic engagement through virtual auditing and labeling.

Recipient of the Best Paper Award at the 2019 ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Project Sidewalk is an interactive tool that allows users to virtually explore neighborhoods and label curb ramps, missing or flawed sidewalks, obstacles, and other accessibility problems using Google Street View. Rather than pulling solely from local populations, their potential pool of users scales to anyone with an Internet connection and a web browser, making Project Sidewalk available for any and all to use.

According to figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Nov 29, 2018, 7.7% (18.4 million) of all adults used a cane, crutches, or a walker to assist with mobility and 2.3% (5.5 million) used a wheelchair. Overall, adults 65 years of age and older used a cane, crutches, or a walker at about five times the rate of adults between 18 and 64 years, and they used a wheelchair about four times as often.

Lead researcher and professor Jon Froehlich asserted that there was a need for better transparency accountability in accessibility data, as well accessibility-infused mapping tools.

“A lot of mapping tools have been built around vehicles and cars, and I think it’s just as important that we think about pedestrians, if not more,” Froehlich said. “There’s not really a good way of tracking or assessing accessibility in cities to ensure that cities are actually meeting that legislation.”

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Designed with the interface of an online game, Project Sidewalk puts new users through a short onboarding mission that teaches fundamental notions of accessibility, such as what a curb ramp is and where it should be pointing or if it’s too narrow. After onboarding (or by skipping the tutorial), the user can then begin missions in which they find and label infrastructure flaws. Creation of more labels leads to progress made on missions, which is shown on the progress bar on the dashboard. Completion of missions will then highlight the street that the user has finished adding labels on.

Manaswi Saha, UW Ph.D. student and co-first author of the deployment study on Project Sidewalk, discussed how data visualizations would play a role in addressing questions by stakeholder groups including people with disabilities and their caregivers, advocacy organizations, government officials, transit departments, policymakers, and elected officials.

“I’m doing a study to understand what types of questions are important for them [stakeholders] to answer, and how visualizations can help in doing that,” Saha said. “The study will basically lead to an interactive visualization tool that would be used by different types of stakeholder groups we work with.”

Co-author Aileen Zeng discussed the potential benefits to be gained from automation in optimizing the data collection and validation process.

“All of the work for gathering this data is by humans, it’s a step up from physical audits, but there’s an opportunity to grow through machine learning and automation,” Zeng said. “For me, I think that there’s still a lot of work to be done with the validation interface and the user experience. There are a lot of design questions to be explored such as, ‘How we can build things that allow people to do better validation? If I build this, can I promote faster labeling behavior?’”

Project Sidewalk was initially deployed in Washington, D.C. and is now available in Newberg, Oregon, and Seattle. In future endeavors, the researchers hope to expand their technology to be able to provide accessibility data in any city of their choosing.

“The overarching mission is, ‘Can we point our algorithms at a city, and have our algorithms try to assess its physical accessibility in ours?’” Froehlich said. “Providing all kinds of characteristics of that city’s accessibility, and that’s where we’re really trying to go. These algorithms would not just take into account [Google] Street View imagery, but also satellite imagery, fly-over imagery, and in the future also autonomous car data.”

Reach reporter Daniel Ko at Twitter: @__danielko

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