Digital technologies can help people with mobility-related disabilities

Researcher Victoria Fast looks at how spatial data can improve routing for people with disabilities

Photo: Victoria Fast

Google Maps is a digital technology that many people rely on, on a daily basis. It can help us find our way around the city by car, bike, or foot. For people with mobility-related disabilities, however, the routes it provides are not guaranteed to be accessible, and can cause problems. Why can’t we add a disability feature to help people with mobility issues find a route?

“We have an abundance of digital solutions (apps) to help people get around—but they are often not inclusive of people with disabilities,” says Dr. Victoria Fast, PhD, assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s Department of Geography, Faculty of Arts.

Fast has been trying to find a solution, but it has been challenging. “The data required to build a reliable app to support people with disabilities move around the city is very complicated,” she says. “There are different levels of mobility issues and many things need to be considered.”

Lots of data needed for accessible routing

There is no one-size-fits-all solution as there are a range of barriers people with mobility issues can face. For instance, some people exclusively use wheelchairs, and others can walk but can’t do stairs.

“It’s easy to route a car, a little more complicated to route walking, and very difficult to route accessible mobility. We need data for sidewalks, ramps, stairs, curb cuts, doors, and the condition of those features before we can even consider developing a routing platform—we need lots of data to make it reliable,” says Fast.

Fast is a spatial data scientist developing technologies to help people with mobility issues. She specializes in urban geographic information sciences, where she focuses on issues related to smart cities—the use of data and digital technologies to improve urban life.

Her motivation for pursing this area of study came from her dad, who uses a wheelchair and can have trouble navigating around the city. “My dad has been asking me for years to develop an app to help him get around in his wheelchair. I was surprised to find nothing yet exists for wheelchair-accessible routing,” she says.

About 14 per cent of Canadian adults (four million people) are living with a disability that limits their daily activities, and this number is growing as the population ages. In addition to supporting navigation, Fast would like to develop accessibility scores, similar to how some neighbourhoods have a walkability score. While it would be ideal for all navigation platforms (such as Google, Bing and Apple Maps) to have routing options for people with disabilities, Fast says we first need to acquire reliable and detailed data on barrier and aids to accessible mobility in the build environment.

Accessibility of postsecondary campuses

Fast was recently funded by a SSHRC grant. In addition to researching smart cities, one of her related research projects looks at accessibility of postsecondary campuses in Calgary. She says there is not enough information available for prospective students with mobility issues to help them decide where to study.

Maclean’s magazine goes as far as to rank top party schools and best places to eat, but falls short of providing information of campus accessibility to help students with disabilities decide where they want to apply,” she says.

Through this research, Fast hopes to develop methods to map and assess the accessibility of all campuses in Canada so students with disabilities can make more informed choices about the best school to attend.

Marta Cyperling, University Relations, at the University of Calgary, wrote this story. It was first published on the university’s website.