Achieving local Accessibility with structured Open Data

In the following I would like to present an approach to improve the mobility of people with disabilities using open and structured data. The approach presented here is the provision of information on the accessibility of buildings or other facilities as open structured data.

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Status Quo

People with sensory or physical disabilities often face the problem of finding out whether a building or facility such as a park can be used without barriers. Depending on the disability, different questions are involved, here are a few examples:

  • Is wheelchair access possible?
  • Are there wheelchair-accessible elevators and toilets?
  • Are there steps or other obstacles that limit mobility?
  • Are there facilities that make communication easier for hearing aid wearers?

Some municipal authorities provide such information as text on their websites. This information is often incomplete, outdated or simply wrong. The wheelchair-accessible toilet is used as a storage room, the wheelchair access is rendered unusable by a construction site, the audio loop has been broken for five years, and so on.

Other establishments such as restaurants, guesthouses or parks do not even provide such information, so it is not available. Anyone who has the patience to call the facilities will not receive any useful or incorrect information.

Information on the accessibility of some facilities can be accessed via projects such as Wheelmap or special databases. There are also some problems here:

The database, especially in many databases is so small that it is practically irrelevant.

Information on Wheelmap may be incorrect or out of date. As commendable as the participants' commitment is, their assessment of a place's accessibility may be incorrect or incomplete.

Structured data as a solution

So there are two requirements that accessibility data must meet: they must be as complete, accurate, and correct as possible, and they must be kept up-to-date. Both requirements are most likely to be met if the data is provided by the facility operator itself.

One possible format for this is the Extensible Markup Language (XML). XML has the advantage of being a simple and widely used language for structured information.

The format is extensible, new criteria can be added at any time without older datasets becoming incompatible.

Possible problems

The first objection could be that it is not possible to provide such data centrally. But that shouldn't be a problem. Many websites already provide the latest news as an RSS feed. RSS is an XML-based format that is processed by many applications.

Data protection concerns should also not play a role, the information about the accessibility of a building or other facilities should not be affected by any data protection regulation. In addition, it is primarily only about the publicly accessible areas of the facilities. Therefore, there should not be any security concerns.

The problem is more likely to be getting the institutions to provide this data once. Germany is still conservative when it comes to open data. there is no need to talk about the service orientation of authorities in this country, they simply do not exist.

Public institutions should be most likely to be convinced of the concept. It is likely to be quite a lot of work to answer citizens' inquiries about the accessibility of the facilities. Due to regulations on equality, accessibility or the integration of people with disabilities, they are often obliged to ensure accessibility. Accordingly, permanent or temporary problems in this area can lead to anger and frustration on both sides.

The city as such also benefits from this. Many regions have specialized in accessible tourism. It is also a great convenience for foreign visitors, because the data is not specially translated, but can be automatically processed and translated into the user's language by a mobile application. That is precisely the advantage of standardized structured data.

Commercial companies also benefit from this. Wheelchair users also want to go to the hairdresser, pizzeria or pub. Especially in times when the classic pedestrian zones are being replaced by monotonous shopping malls, companies in the city center should not be so short-sighted as to want to do without disabled customers.

Why open data?

Open and structured data enable completely new usage scenarios. Since many disabled people already have smartphones and constant internet access, they can use them to improve their mobility. For example, it becomes easier to spontaneously search for accessible cafés in the area.

Open data can be integrated into existing systems such as Google Maps, OpenStreetMap or Wheelmap. The numerous navigation apps can also integrate the data. In addition, new applications can be developed by the community to evaluate this data in a user-friendly manner.

The special advantage of XML is that all XML dialects can be combined very freely. Google's map services, for example, are based on KML, a language for geodata. There are XML languages for augmented reality, local bus and train maps can easily be made available in an XML language. The combination of information from different sources significantly expands the possible uses.

Structure and maintenance of the data

The data would have to be collected at least once in full. For this purpose, qualified employees can be provided with questionnaires or checklists in order to record the information as precisely as possible. In the next step, the data is entered into the system, this can be done using a standardized HTML form. However, it would also be conceivable to develop a special mobile application for this purpose. The Application could provide specific instructions on how to collect the data if requested, or if a question requires more specific information, provide that information.

Once the data has been collected, care must be taken to ensure that it remains up-to-date. Fundamental changes to the building structure are rare, so that major adjustments are not necessary that often. However, should there be any changes or temporary problems, these can also be entered using an HTML form. The advantage is that the person responsible does not need to have any special programming or database knowledge. The responsible editor enters permanent or temporary obstacles and can provide information on alternatives.

The following usage scenario would be conceivable: a wheelchair user enters all the facilities that he visits regularly in one application, for example his faculty, a train station and a café. If there is a temporary change, such as a defective elevator, a warning is immediately displayed via this application and he can think of an alternative strategy. Of course, the institution concerned can also use this message to send him a link through which he can obtain further information, for example about an alternative.

The same is conceivable for construction sites, disabled parking spaces, subway elevators and any other limited area.

In turn, an accessibility report in text form for the website can be automatically generated from the data created. This ensures that normal Internet users also have access to this information. Since the report can be generated dynamically, it also captures permanent or temporary changes immediately after they have been entered.

This also makes it possible to raise awareness of accessibility. Disability and accessibility are often not considered because those affected do not have to deal with the topic. But if they have to build up and maintain a database, they can hardly avoid it.

Research needs

If everyone cooks their own data soup, we won't be in a better position than we are now. Basically, we know what data we need, they are all in various DIN standards and other specifications that are incomprehensible to normal people. Above all, it is necessary to develop a uniform language to describe this mobility data. We need a mobility markup language. It's best not to be developed by the usual suspect committees. Somehow I doubt that the disabled would want to wait another 10 to 20 years for improvements. Either way, progress in this area would be desirable, my impression is that despite all the technical advances in mobility, we're stuck in 1999.