Civic hacking with Impact: Raising Visibility of (In)Accessibility in Philadelphia

A broken elevator at 5th and Market Station - Westbound platform access
UnlockPhilly Web App showing 2nd St Station and accessible venues around it
UnlockPhilly Web App

Just over a year ago I started a volunteer civic project with Code for Philly called UnlockPhilly at a Hackathon called Apps for Philly Transit. UnlockPhilly’s aim: to raise awareness of good and bad accessibility by mapping accessible stations, elevator outages and accessible venues in Philadelphia. This blog post reviews progress made so far and describes recent efforts to prototype an idea for an accessible new app.

UnlockPhilly is a great example of a civic hacking project that has gone beyond the Hackathon to provide useful tools that take into account the needs of the community and make a positive impact.

Over the past year the project has grown. People have found the project online and contacted me; new volunteers have joined the team and contributions have even been made by volunteers I’ve never met via Github. This had led to some nice achievements:-

  • We’ve had the opportunity to present our project and talk about accessibililty at local meetups and conferences at places like Indy Hall, Drexel and The University of Pennsylvania.
  • The project has featured in news stories and local websites; raising visibility of accessibility issues and getting broken elevators fixed.
  • We’ve been nominated for a Geek Award and a Philly News Award (didn’t win either, but, again, a success to see a civic project about accessibility recognized and visible).
  • Fellow Philly-based Civic Hacker Jim Smiley teamed up with us and joined forces with Girl Develop IT (GDI) to provide an Accessible Trip Planning app based on Google Directions (more details on his blog).

Personally, I’ve learnt so much since starting the project and am honored to have made some great friends.  I look at the world differently ; always checking for issues when I go out and suggesting ways to improve accessibility when I come across obstacles and inaccessible places.

Recognition of the hard work made by groups like ADAPT and the Disability Rights Network (DRN) is important. Accessibility has improved dramatically in Philadelphia over the past 20 years thanks to tireless campaigning by advocates and activists. For example, all city buses are now wheelchair accessible and elevators have been installed at many stations.

However, there are still huge problems: shops, restaurants, bars and recreational facilities are often completely inaccessible, many stations are still inaccessible and extended elevator outages reduce the number of accessible places still further. This situation isn’t limited to old, established businesses; many newly opened businesses and buildings also neglect the needs of people with disabilities.

Picture shows steps and other barriers to entry for people with disabilities
Barriers to entry

Poor accessibility affects more individuals than you may realize:  people with disabilities and older adults are often excluded from social events, job opportunities and education. Parents with strollers and people transporting luggage find access challenging when stations and buildings don’t provide ramps and elevators. We’re all getting older and anyone at any time could have an accident or illness that makes it difficult for them to use steps. You may not be directly affected right now by poor accessibility, but most of us have family members and friends that are. Inconsiderate construction and renovation leads to barriers and exclusion within society and inequality; a bad situation all-round.

Tweeting about an abandoned elevator at 8th Street stationUnlockphilly really got noticed in February 2014 when we started using social media to highlight problems with elevators being out of service. After hooking into SEPTA’s elevator outage feed, patterns emerged, and we let people know about them; a news story was run investigating 8th Street Station, which had been out of service for around 2 months. A crew of engineers fixed and cleaned the abandoned elevator the day after the story was published and we’ve noticed big improvements in the length of time it takes for elevators to get fixed since.

Elevator Outage Stats on Unlock Philly
Elevator outage stats for SEPTA MFL and BSS stations

We store elevator outage history and provide visuals (with accessible, dynamic text descriptions) on our station pages. This allows us to look back over prior months to see where the problem areas are.

All this has been very successful; however, our mission to map accessibility of places relies on Yelp data and, unfortunately, this source is sub-par for a number of reasons:-

  • Criteria in Yelp is a simple ‘accessible=yes’ answer. More granular information about restrooms, doors, seating areas etc. is required to make it useful to people.
  • The accessibility field in Yelp is controlled by the business itself and is often inaccurate. Many people report that they call up venues in advance to check whether a place really is accessible to them.
  • There are many places that are not listed as ‘accessible=yes’ on Yelp (and may be accessible) and there is no ‘accessible=no’ criteria; therefore it’s difficult to build up a picture of what is and isn’t accessible across the city.

Only 9 out of 72 store fronts accessible on 4 block stretch of N3rd Street in PhiladelphiaAs a first step to improve data accuracy, we carried out a simple survey of four blocks of 3rd Street in Old City (August 2014).  Recently rebranded N3rd Street, this is the hub of the tech community in Philadelphia. It’s also home to many small, independent shops, cafes, galleries and tourist attractions.  Based on simple criteria (store front wheelchair accessible or not), we found that out of 72 store fronts, only 9 of them were wheelchair accessible.  We also found that businesses claiming to be wheelchair accessible on Yelp had steps and inaccessible restrooms.

Our next step was to investigate options for crowdsourcing the accessibility information so that we could run ‘mapathons’ to gather more accurate data.  We looked at 2 websites that already crowdsource the kind of data we need, Axsmap and Wheelmap, but found they didn’t meet our first priority – an accessible user interface. We weren’t comfortable  collecting data about accessibility using a website or app that isn’t accessible to people; neither of these apps passed the test of being fully accessible to screen readers that people who are blind or visually impaired use.

Search for place screen on Map4Access prototype
Map4Access prototype

This is when we embarked on a separate project run by Philadelphia Link to build and test an accessible webapp prototype. We wanted it to be easy for any user to find and rate accessibility of a place. Ather Sharif and I worked on the application development and made great efforts to ensure it worked across desktops, tablets and smartphones (using ‘responsive’ web development techniques) and was fully accessible to screen readers.

We did a great deal of work to ensure there were sufficient categories to make the data we collected useful to as many people as possible; Clark Matthews and Liz Wilkerson led this effort. There was a fine balance between keeping the form simple and fast to complete while still making it comprehensive enough.  For example, the entrance width, ramp pitch, door weight, noise level, restroom size and table height are all important data points. Accessibility experts make use of checklists to assess building accessibility, but these checklists are too complex to be used by our project since users would be put off completing the web form.

Screenshots of the app and questions about accessibility
Screenshots of the app with questions about accessibility categories

Austin Seraphin; a web accessibilty expert tested our prototype and recommended changes to ensure it works with screen readers on the various device types.

Clark Matthews present the trial webapp at Liberty Resources
Clark Matthews presents the trial webapp at Liberty Resources

To get user feedback as early as possible, Faith Haeussler organized a one-week trial of the ‘Map4Access’ prototype with a group of 40 people. We met everyone at a kick-off meeting at Liberty Resources (Philadelphia’s Center for Independent Living)  and showed people how to use the app we had developed. Our testers rated places for a week and at the end of the trial we carried out telephone interviews to get feedback.

All the trial data was collected completely anonymously and we didn’t publish anything or link back to businesses. We just wanted a way to see how well the webapp worked from a usability perspective.

Here are some things we learned during our analysis and trial of an accessible crowdsourcing app:-

  • People enjoyed taking part in the trial and provided us with extremely valuable feedback about things we hadn’t thought of.
  • Most people liked our app and had no problem inputting the data about places they had visited.
  • Developing a responsive webapp (rather than separate iPhone/Android apps) was quick and effective for a prototype; and the final result meant that no-one needed to download anything.
  • Everyone has different needs and preferences when it comes to accessibility and the information we gathered proved that it’s important to provide detailed criteria to make the data useful.
  • Nothing beats user feedback!

We’re not ready to launch; there’s a lot more work to be done to get the app ready for primetime.

The existing Unlockphilly webapp is quite separate and uses open data sets and feeds that we don’t manage; therefore there’s little overhead or ongoing support. A crowdsourcing app with users and ratings requires significant resources to run and maintain that we don’t currently have as volunteers. We are exploring ways to move the project forward.

We’ve learnt a great deal through this process of building and testing the map4access prototype and will continue to provide advice and expertise on accessibility to groups that are interested the project.

Stay tuned for further developments. Lots more posts about accessibility (both on and off-line) in the near future and we will be getting involved in community projects  and writing about them.

Please leave comments below with feedback and your own personal experiences of accessibility.

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