For blind bus riders, a new app boosts independence

By Madeline Ken
NEW YORK, Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The app, called StopInfo, is integrated into a popular existing app called OneBusAway that gives real time information on the location of city buses.

StopInfo adds details that help blind riders find the bus stop.

“When a user wants detailed information about a transit stop, he or she touches a button and the system displays details, such as where the stop is in relation to street intersections, whether there is a bench and trash can, what the shape of the sign pole is . . . This information can be read out loud for blind users of the phone, using VoiceOver mode,” explained Alan Borning in email to Reuters Health.

Borning is a professor at the University of Washington. His graduate students created the new application.

While StopInfo sources most of its information from the King County Metro database, it also relies on information from community users, blind and otherwise. To make sure the information added by users is correct, the app uses a voting system, where each submission counts as a vote. To be verified, a submission must have at least three votes and 75% of submissions must be in agreement.

StopInfo is freely available and runs on iOS (iPhone), Android, and Windows Phone platforms, and also via SMS, interactive voice response, and the Web.

It’s been widely used, according to Caitlin Bonnar, one of the app’s creators.

She told Reuters Health by email that StopInfo “is accessed, on average, around a thousand times a day since we launched in late February, indicating that it is also used by the general population. We have received around 1,300 information submissions for 845 unique bus stops around Seattle since then.”

With StopInfo gaining in popularity, its creators recruited six middle-aged users for a small study of how it affects the way blind people travel. Three participants were completely blind; the others had varying levels of usable vision. Four lived in Seattle suburbs, while two lived in urban centers.

The results, which will be presented at the Association for Computing Machinery’s annual conference in October and are reported in the Association’s Assets ’14 publication, show that StopInfo is generally helpful for blind riders and can promote spontaneous and unfamiliar travel.

The study lasted about five weeks, during which participants were asked to fill out web forms with details of 10 to 20 trips they took during that period.

The participants were already skilled at traveling independently and using smartphones, and so the researchers note that they may not reflect the general population.

Borning says participants, “found the system usable and the information helpful . . . All participants said they would continue using StopInfo after the study.”

He and his students were most interested in three elements: usability, independence and safety. Independence was particularly important, as this is a constant struggle for blind people and was rated as very important by participants.

The results suggest that the app supports independence. Participants said on 29 (38%) of their web forms that they would not normally have attempted the trip they were taking and consulted StopInfo on 26 (89%) of these trips.

StopInfo did not significantly affect feelings of safety, however – and the researchers fear users might feel vulnerable to mugging while using their smartphones in public.

In on-foot audits, the researchers found that the app’s information was 100% accurate in nearly all categories. Jeff Switzer, of the King County Department of Transportation, told Reuters Health by email that his department has worked with the creators “to put measures in place that can monitor the system and bring any data vandalism to their attention for follow-up and correction.”

Although its companion app, OneBusAway, operates in several cities across the country, StopInfo is currently limited to the Seattle area. Borning, who was also involved in creating OneBusAway, feels that for now, StopInfo is best kept as a pilot program. It needs to be evaluated over a longer period, he said, “to see how useful it is for a larger number of people, to see whether we can sustain participation in entering and verifying information, and to see how well it fits with transit agency operations.”

Marion Hersh of the University of Glasgow in Scotland, who studies assistive technology and disability but was not involved in the new research, agrees. She emphasizes the importance of standardizing the app across the transit systems of different cities so that blind people can move between them easily. Ideally, the system would “work at all bus stops preferably worldwide,” Hersh told Reuters Health by email.

Borning is optimistic about these kinds of tools. “We are in an exciting time for supporting the independence of blind and low vision people — and people with disabilities more generally – using off-the shelf technology like smart phones,” he said.

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