Perkins wins grant to build mobile transportation app

New app will help people who are blind locate bus stops and other precise locations

A woman using a white cane walks past a bus stop.

Joann Becker frequently uses public transportation to get around the Boston area. Photo Credit: Anna Miller

Armed with her iPhone and white cane, Joann Becker can find her way almost anywhere, with one frustrating exception – bus stops.

Becker, an assistive technology trainer for Perkins Solutions, routinely uses public transportation to get around the Boston area, tracking bus arrival times using a mobile app with voiceover. But the GPS on her iPhone can’t always tell her precisely where bus stops are located.

“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. If I don’t know where the stops are, I can’t get on the bus.”

In March, Perkins School for the Blind announced an ambitious plan to tackle the problem head-on. Over the next year, Perkins will design, develop and test a mobile app that helps users independently locate bus stops and other specific locations in Boston.

The goal of the app will be to pick up where traditional GPS leaves off, giving users like Becker specific navigational clues to get within a white cane’s length of their exact destination.

“We’re going to focus on micronavigation, which is a real challenge for folks who are blind or visually impaired,” said Bill Oates, vice president of Perkins Solutions, the technology division of Perkins School for the Blind. “GPS can only get you so close – we want to help people safely traverse those last 25-30 feet so they can get to work, explore their surroundings and contribute to their communities.”

The project is funded by a $750,000 grant awarded to Perkins by the Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities, which supports nonprofits with innovative ideas on using technology to help people with disabilities gain greater independence.

Perkins plans to utilize crowdsourcing to populate the app with information on bus stops in Boston. Once the app is tested locally, it could be expanded to other cities with public transportation systems, Oates said.

“I think this particular work has great opportunity to scale and impact a lot of people,” he said. “We’re excited to show Google how we’re going to take their investment and do great things with it.”

These days, when Becker waits for the bus in an unfamiliar neighborhood, she knows there’s a possibility that she’s standing in the wrong place and the bus will pass her by. The Perkins app will be a game-changer in these situations, she said.

“This is going to make all the difference in our ability to independently travel and find bus stops wherever we are in Boston,” said Becker. “That’s something we haven’t been able to do before. This is really going to alter our experience.”

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