GPS applications on college campuses: O&M

Using built in features of Google Maps and Apple Maps for navigating college campuses with low vision.

Shortly before my second year of college, I received a few orientation and mobility lessons for learning how to navigate with low vision and a blindness cane. These lessons were helpful for learning general travel skills, but I noticed they didn’t get into specifics about navigating college campuses or using university resources available for students with vision loss. One lesson that would have been really helpful is how to configure GPS applications on my smartphone for getting directions on campus, so I’ve created the College O&M series to share my most-used tips and strategies for learning about this topic and others. Here are my tips for using GPS apps on college campuses and navigating campus with technology.

Why use a GPS application?

Almost every smartphone comes with a built-in GPS application that can provide directions for walking, driving, or using public transportation to get somewhere. While these applications are not specifically designed for blind/low vision users, there are still multiple features and accessibility tools that can help tremendously with navigating unfamiliar environments, and being able to use these applications are a core part of learning orientation and mobility skills. Since I have an Android phone, I use the Google Maps app the most frequently, though many of these features are also available in Apple Maps.

It’s worth noting that this post covers navigating outdoor environments and buildings. To learn more about using tools for navigating indoor environments with vision loss, check out the posts linked below.

Related links

Storing and labeling addresses

When I first started living on campus, I added about 15 different campus addresses to my phone and added labels to them within the GPS application. This made it easier for me to search for locations as well as ask for directions using the dictation feature. Since some buildings are not labeled correctly on my college campus within GPS applications, this allows me to add my own labels manually.

To add a label to an address on Google Maps:

  1. Type in the address using the search bar in Google Maps
  2. Tap the name of the location in the search results to open the Information panel
  3. Select the Label option, or select the three-dot menu and select Add Label from the drop-down menu
  4. Type in the desired name for the label in the Enter a Label field
  5. Select the Add Label button to save for later

With Apple Maps, users can add an address to their favorites for easy access either. To add a location to favorites:

  1. Type in the address using the search bar in Apple Maps
  2. Swipe up on the lower panel
  3. Select the Add Favorite option

Another option with Apple Maps is to save addresses to a Guide, which stores a list of various addresses. To create a guide:

  1. Open the Apple Maps app and swipe up on the lower panel
  2. Next to the My Guides section, select See All
  3. Tap New Guide, enter a title, and select Create
  4. Tap Add A Place and add locations from favorites or type in the address for a place using the search bar
  5. Tap the plus sign next to the location to save it to the guide
  6. Add additional locations by opening the guide and selecting the blue plus sign

Related links

Enable detailed walking instructions

Google Maps has an option to enable detailed walking instructions that provide additional navigational information, like alerting to busy streets or providing more precise time estimates for getting from one location to another. This feature is designed for users with vision loss in mind, though sighted users may also benefit from the detailed instructions.

To enable detailed walking instructions in Google Maps:

  1. Open Google Maps and go to the Account and Settings menu
  2. Select the Settings menu option
  3. Select Navigation Settings
  4. Within the Walking options section, turn on Detailed Voice Guidance

Finding information on bus routes

Both Google Maps and Apple Maps provide users with the option to get directions from one place to another using public transit and can display updates about the location of a bus/subway, as well as how much time it will take to arrive to the next stop. For routes that require a transfer, there are also directions for how to get to the next transfer location.

It’s worth noting that this feature does not support college/university bus systems as these are not generally open to the public- so I couldn’t get information about the college shuttle to the local mall using either of these apps. Instead, I downloaded the transportation app provided by my college to get more information on those routes.

Related links

Attach location to text messages

When one of my friends got lost on campus and was having trouble telling me where they were, I suggested they send me their location over text so that I could meet up with them. Using the location they sent, I was able to get directions and go find them so we could walk to get food together.

To send location data with an Android device:

  1. Open a conversation within the Messages application
  2. Tap the plus icon next to the message field
  3. Select Location, and if prompted, select the Precise option
  4. Select the Send button to share the location with the recipient using a Google Maps link. The location does not update if a person moves to a different area.

To send location data with an iOS device:

  1. Open a conversation within the Messages application
  2. Tap the contact’s name to open the Information pane
  3. Select Share My Location and set a time duration- 1 hour, end of day, or indefinitely. The location will update in real time if a person moves to a different area

Location data can also be shared with other third-party messaging applications, including WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

Related links

Review previous locations with the timeline feature

When I was learning different routes to walk to buildings on campus, the timeline feature in Google Maps allowed me to view a location history so I could see how I got from one place to another, as well as review places I have been. This has also come in handy when trying to remember the name of a restaurant I went to, or for tracking how far I’ve walked on a given day.

How to view location history/timeline on Google Maps:

  1. Open Google Maps and go to the Account and Settings menu
  2. Select the Your Timeline option
  3. View location information for the current day or use the calendar feature to select a previous day

The location history/timeline feature on Apple Maps does not track routes or other information like the Google Maps feature does, so if this feature is of particular interest, I recommend downloading the Google Maps app for iOS.

Related links

Following bus routes/ridesharing routes

When I am on the bus or using a ridesharing service, it helps to track where I am going on a GPS application in real time so that I don’t miss a stop or so that I can tell the driver to drop me off in another area if needed. Since bus stops are not announced out loud on the city bus, this also helps me figure out when I am close to my stop.

To track bus routes/ridesharing routes, I keep a GPS application with either public transit directions or driving directions enabled so I can follow along. Both Apple Maps and Google Maps have the ability to alert users when they are getting close to their stop on public transportation as well.

Other ways I use GPS applications on college campuses

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes,

Updated July 2023; original post published January 2017

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