Now in its sixth year the AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards showcase some of the amazing ways that tech can help the world a better place, including digital health, skills and young people. The Accessibility Award is judged by AbilityNet and demonstrates innovation in meeting the needs of disabled people. This year’s winner is Wayfindr, which provides a new way for blind and partially sighted people to navigate their environment.
After the excitement of the ceremony in the summer, we caught up with Katherine Payne of Wayfindr to learn more about how it works and what it offers. She explained that the the team is working with Transport for London (TfL) to develop a technical solution that could transform the lives of people around the world.
Tell us more about Wayfindr...
Essentially, it’s a set of instructions and code that can be built into an app, such as the Transport for London (TfL) app. When someone using the app passes a strategically-placed bluetooth beacon, they will get audio instructions and directions spoken via their smartphone to help navigate their environment, for example a tube station. The instructions are very detailed, so they tell a user how many steps they are about to walk down and so on.
THE Journeys are planned using humans and algorithms. It works a bit like a satnav, but with more detailed instructions, and can be used on the Underground or in places without phone signal. We're still doing trials at the moment, so it's not publically available.
Where did the idea for Wayfindr come from?
In their 2014 manifesto, RLSB's (Royal London Society for Blind People) youth forum said they'd love more independence while using the tube and being out and about, they also talked about how useful they find smartphone maps. Something sparked. Within six weeks, digital product studio Ustwo had quickly prototyped a basic version of Wayfindr working with RLSB and the forum.
How is the idea coming to life?
It's not a new idea as such, but we're at the point where consumer technology has caught up so we can use off-the-shelf equipment, such as smartphones and the Bluetooth beacons.
We are creating a standard set of instructions (Open Standard) to be used by app developers and those managing public spaces. This will include advice for developers and a prototype demo app that can be incorporated into apps, for instance Google Maps, or an app for a shopping centre. The Open Standard was created after months of research, testing and designing, while collaborating with experts.
What stage are you at with Wayfindr?
Wayfindr is a joint venture between RLSB and ustwo which received £1m funding through Google Impact Challenge Disabilities programme for the project. Over the last 18 months or so we've trialled it with around 100 people who have sight loss and we are adapting it all the time.
Our trials so far have been on transport networks in London and Sydney, but the idea of the Open Standard is that the user experience would be consistent whenever it is used to make travelling simpler when people are moving from place to place.
Could Wayfindr also be useful for people other than those with sight loss?
Absolutely. We're realising the global scale of the solution. It can be useful for those who struggle to interact with signs or who have cognitive issues, as well as those who find London and crowds overwhelming or don’t have English as a first language. People with learning disabilities or anxiety might also find it useful because it can take some of the confusion out of travelling.
What's next for the project?
It's very much an ongoing piece of work. At the moment we're working on the next release of the Open Standard, which should be available by the end of the year. People are really keen to know when they can have it on their phones and we’re working tirelessly with transport networks to move Wayfindr forward, including looking at how this would work large scale within a transport system.
Check out these blogs from people who've trialled Wayfindr: