A wheelchair user is pictured in front of protest signs about accessibility.
Jacky Naegelen/Reuters

The tech giant is tapping into its global army of users to make its Maps app more useful for people with disabilities.

If there’s one thing Google’s got at its disposal, it’s a global army of avid map users. Now the company is leveraging that power to make its Maps feature more useful for people with mobility challenges—a group that often gets overlooked in the world of transit and urban innovation.

Google Maps already indicates if a location is wheelchair accessible—a result of a personal project by one of its employees—but its latest campaign will crowdsource data from its 30 million Local Guides worldwide, who contribute tips and photos about neighborhood establishments in exchange for points and small prizes like extra digital storage space. The company is calling on them to answer five simple questions—like whether a building has accessible entrances or bathrooms—when they submit a review for a location. In the coming weeks, Google will host workshops and “geowalks” specifically focused on mobility across seven cities, from New York City and London to Tokyo and Surabaya, Indonesia.

“The [users] have multiple motivations, and one is wanting to help their own community get around.” says Laura Slabin, Google’s director of local content and community. “So we’re leveraging the fact that people are motivated by altruism.”

But as simple as the questions seem—Is there wheelchair-accessible seating? or Is there a wheelchair-accessible elevator?—answering them requires careful attention to detail. That’s why Google even sent out a  nifty tip sheet to help its physically abled members answer those questions.

“It’s thinking beyond that just because there's an elevator, it's accessible,” says Becky Curran, a disability rights advocate and a local guide who contributes frequently. “And yes, there may be a ramp, but maybe the doorway isn't wide enough for a wheelchair to get through.” Curran recalls her old apartment building, which had an elevator inside, but also narrow doorways and two steps at the entrance.

The good thing is that the community has already been thinking about mobility issues. Not too long ago, a group in New York held a meet up to do an accessibility check on New York City’s subway. And the last time Curran organized a scavenger hunt in the city, she and her team were careful to only include locations where the subway was wheelchair accessible.

“One of the biggest things for the disability community is that they want to know that people are there when help is needed,” Curran says, “but everyone wants to try [doing it themselves] before asking for that help.”

Google’s campaign isn’t necessarily new or groundbreaking. As I reported last year, researchers and disabilities activists have, on a smaller scale, been working to create apps and interactive maps to help the disabled community navigate cities. But such an undertaking by a tech giant could perhaps make the needs of the disabilities community a priority in the burgeoning tech sector.

At least that’s what 19-year-old Belinda Bradley hoped for last year when she started a viral Change.org petition urging Google to add wheelchair-friendly routes to their Maps app. While she has no physical disabilities, she believes companies and cities often consider people like her mother, who switches between a wheelchair and crutches, more of an afterthought. For her, Google’s current initiative to include accessibility information for specific locations doesn’t go far enough.

The last time Bradley tried to use Google Maps to take her mom to Olympia, London—just 15 minutes by car and 30 minutes by public transit from her university—it was a major hassle. "We couldn’t get on the bus because even if it had a ramp it was too [crowded],” she recalls. “And every time we rang up a taxi, they’d turn us down." They decided to walk there, but their path was full of narrow sidewalks, hills, and busy bike lanes. And looking for an alternative route on Google Maps turned up nothing.

After months of silence, Bradley says Google finally responded shortly after her petition made national headlines. Later this month, she will be meeting with members of the Local Guides community to discuss ideas on how to apply her proposal.

On the one hand, Bradley praises other groups for trying to fill in the gap with their own app. But she says she specifically targeted her petition at Google Maps because of the kind reach the company has. “Google has a much wider data [than others], and it's the number one [navigation] app,” she says, adding that to her, that was a form of discrimination. “We shouldn’t have to be forced into using a separate app.”

Slabin says Google has been addressing accessibility since at least 2010. But this time, the company is “moving more aggressively” as the data becomes more detailed and as their 2-year-old Local Guides program continues to grow. “We're at a scale where we can have a larger impact,” she tells CityLab, adding that mobility challenges are only the beginning of what they hope to tackle in the near future.

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