Like many of you, I use the Google Maps application on my smartphone, a lot. Whether I need to locate the nearest convenience store or find the closest BART stop, having a map in my hand with a realtime “you are here” dot is an incredible convenience. And there are now a huge variety of custom smartphone maps with specific themes — I can launch the Yelp app and see a map of every sushi restaurant within walking distance that hasn’t closed for the evening, and critical reviews of each one. Very useful.
But finding the closest restaurant is useless if you can’t actually get inside the restaurant — and for many of our fellow citizens, that’s a far-too-common occurrence. Even as our cities continue to become more accessible, people that use walkers, wheelchairs, or mobility scooters still encounter barriers that can interfere with their day-to-day life. AXSMap to the rescue!
AXSMap is a crowdsourced accessibility map — a way for people to share their reviews of restaurants, stores, hotels, and other public venues based on accessibility criteria. Once registered on the site, users can contribute their reviews of a nearby location’s entry accessibility, ramps, elevators, restroom accessibility, Braille menu availability and signage, and other similar criteria. Users of the service can quickly and easily find accessible businesses of a certain type nearby or in a future travel destination.
Like any crowdsourced data service, it’s important to make it as easy as possible for the user community to contribute data — in this case, reviews of one to five stars for each venue. AXSMap uses browser geolocation and Google’s Places API to populate a database of businesses and locations for the reviewer community to build upon. Reviews are entered and published on the public map — and accessible businesses can even get a window placard to indicate their accessibility to passersby.
On May 12, 2012, the AXSMap staff held two mapping events simultaneously — one in New York City’s Union Square neighborhood and one in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood (home to the Code for America office). Volunteers assembled at each location for a quick tutorial in the AXSMap platform and how to perform accessibility mapping. They were then given a paper map showing their target streets and set loose to begin mapping.
I shadowed a group of volunteers heading down 8th Street from Howard to Folsom. Our first stop was a local mattress store where, after hearing a short explanation of the project, the staff were quick to let us proceed. The store had a very accessible entryway — no steps, no bumps, no grade, just a smooth pathway from the sidewalk to the retail floor. By AXSMap standards, this is a five-star entryway, and we entered the review accordingly. We left an AXSMap placard for the staff to put in the window, letting neighborhood residents know about the project and the store’s status.
Over a dozen volunteers participated here in San Francisco at the event, mapping dozens of area businesses and venues. I had the chance to speak with the organization’s founder, Jason DaSilva, and the executive director, Alice Cook, about the current status of the project and what the future holds (hint: more reviews, more features, and more visibility). I also got to “geek out” a bit with Senior Technologist Kevin Bluer and showed off some of the paper- and phone-based field data collection projects we’ve built and deployed at Code for America, most recently my colleague Nick’s “Red Pen” addition to Field Papers.
As a neogeographer, someone who wants to see easy-to-use mapping tools in the hands of as many people as possible, this was a very inspiring and exciting event. Watching volunteers build a real-time map of neighborhood accessibility — something that can be useful to so many residents of the area — was a fantastic “Code for America” grassroots experience! To get involved with AXSMap in your area, or to learn more, be sure to visit their website.
This app will provide a great service to the people who need it most.
What I am most curious to see down the road is whether the window placard, and the incentive of good reviews, will cause businesses to improve their accessibility to compete with more accessible businesses. It’s an interesting case-study, “the advocacy of the apps.”