Google.org awards grant to Perkins to build 'micronavigation' app

Innovative mobile app will help people who are blind locate bus stops and other precise locations, making public transportation more accessible

A woman using a white cane walks past a bus stop

Assistive technology trainer Joann Becker often has trouble locating bus stops using her iPhone's built-in GPS. Photo Credit: Anna Miller.

April 12, 2016

With help from a Google.org grant, Perkins School for the Blind is embarking on a groundbreaking project that will change the way people who are blind or visually impaired access public transportation.

The $750,000 grant, awarded through The Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities, will fund the development of a mobile app that helps users independently locate bus stops and other very specific locations. Perkins will be designing, developing and testing the app over the next year.

“For people who are blind or visually impaired, locating an exact, physical landmark like a bus stop can be a real challenge,” said Bill Oates, vice president of Perkins Solutions, the technology division of Perkins School for the Blind. “GPS can only get you so close, so we’re going to focus our grant on micronavigation – helping people safely traverse those last 25-30 feet to their destination.”

Many people who are blind say taking the bus or subway is the best way to get to work, attend school or go shopping. Other transportation options have drawbacks – taking cabs can be expensive and asking sighted friends for rides can feel burdensome.

Neither alternative appeals to Jeff Migliozzi, a teacher in Perkins’ Secondary Program. He frequently takes the bus, but said he has often confused light posts or street signs for bus stops.

“I try to use my cane to find bus stops but then usually ask people to double-check,” he said. “Sometimes I miss my bus, because asking people takes time.”

Armed with her iPhone and white cane, Joann Becker, an assistive technology trainer for Perkins Solutions, can find her way almost anywhere. When the distance is too far to walk, she uses public transportation, mapping her route and tracking bus arrival times using a mobile app with voiceover. Becker said she has little difficulty navigating the Boston area, with one frustrating exception.

“My iPhone does a great job of telling me approximately where I am, but it doesn’t give me any information about specific bus stops,” she said. “That’s a really big problem. I need to be able to find where the physical bus stop is, otherwise the bus goes right past me.”

The goal of the Perkins app is to pick up where commercial GPS leaves off – giving users detailed navigation clues that bring them within a white cane’s length or less of bus stops and eventually other transportation markers like taxi stands and crosswalk signals. Perkins plans to utilize crowdsourcing to gather information on bus stops in and around Boston.

Once the app is tested locally, it could easily expand to other cities, Oates said.

“I think this particular work has great opportunity to scale and impact a lot of people,” he said. “We’re excited to take this grant and do great things with it.”

Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities supports nonprofits with creative ideas that utilize technology to expand opportunity and independence for people with disabilities. Perkins and other grant winners were chosen from more than 1,000 submissions received from around the world, said Brigitte Gosselink, head of Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities.

“At Google.org, we support organizations that offer innovative solutions to complex challenges,” she said. “We’re thrilled to back Perkins School for the Blind as they help build a world that works for everyone.”

Learn more at perkins.org/bus »