Real Time Data Delivers Real Social Change
Most European cities note that they have an ageing population and with more and more people anticipated to live in cities, the subject of mobility within the city is becoming ever more pressing. Brussels, for example, recently reported that almost 30% of people face “limited mobility” – either in the form of a disability, temporary illness/injury, old age, or pregnancy. Even movement through an urban environment with a stroller or heavy luggage can raise a sudden awareness of mobility among any of us.
As part of our social responsibility focus, FedEx Express aims to create sustainable transport systems in communities around the world.
In 2018, we gave a charitable grant to Berlin-based non-profit Sozialhelden, to fund the technical integration of data concerning the functionality of elevators into their existing mobile application, Wheelmap. Now, the app displays the operation status of more than 2,700 elevators across Germany.
We recently met with Holger Dieterich, Co-Founder of Wheelmap.org and discussed how real time data can help bring about real social change.
Q: What prompted the incorporation of real time elevator data into Wheelmap?
A: One obstacle a wheelchair user can face is a set of stairs with no option of taking a working elevator. For example, if you have exited a train in the metro station and find yourself without access to an elevator, there may not even be a well-considered solution to the problem you then face other than returning the way you came, or travelling on to an alternative station. So, when you imagine finding yourself in this situation, you realize the frustration and challenges a broken elevator can cause, not just for wheelchair users but anyone with limited mobility.
The elevator information is the most dynamic part of the application in the sense that it can change momentarily. For example, the elevators in Berlin that show as non-functional one day, may or may not be the same ones that show as non-functional just one day later.
Q: What differentiates Wheelmap from other mobility applications? Does Wheelmap compete with similar applications in cities elsewhere?
A: Wheelmap is one of the largest databases of its kind, with data available worldwide. With the grant awarded by FedEx Express, we are now able to make elevator data available in real time to members of the public in order to aid journey planning and mobility. The back-end of Wheelmap, Accessibility.Cloud, aims to bring together data from as many public and private sources as possible, and make this information reciprocally accessible to other applications who may benefit from it. So, in this respect, Wheelmap is not competing with any other applications, but aiming to further empower them. What motivates and drives us is the possibility of bringing about real social change through accessibility of data and improved mobility for all.
Q: How do you see the scalability and broader application of Wheelmap in other cities around the world?
A: We identified early on, that language was one of few obstacles a user may cite when looking to make use of Wheelmap in their own location. The application is currently translated into 25 languages, but the technical aspects of Wheelmap are immediately scalable to any location. The technical development and functionality required to incorporate elevator data into Wheelmap in Berlin, was immediately available to roll out across Germany, and now already exists to incorporate the same elevator data in Oslo, Madrid, or Toronto for example.
Q: Of course, the primary use of Wheelmap is to make information freely accessible to those individuals who can benefit from knowing and using it. But surely having this information available has other benefits to city planners, transport authorities and decision makers, and can then be used to put mobility, or indeed disability, front of mind as something to address in the most progressive and liveable smart cities?
A: Wheelmap can certainly be useful to highlight the problem, or indeed the scale of the problem faced by persons of limited mobility. There’s common goal among progressive Smart Cities, to make their cities as liveable as possible for their citizens. So, drawing attention to this problem, naturally means people are more likely to address it. In that respect, the Wheelmap application can evolve as a kind of organic activism that can hopefully influence positive change.
Q: How do you see technical innovation playing a more organic role in the movement towards equal accessibility for all?
A: Government change tends to be slower and less innovative than technology, and the private sector is hard to influence. Sozialhelden is a technically innovative non-profit and this technical thinking is what differentiates us. It not only gives us a different perspective on the theme of mobility, but also the ability to present a technical solution.
We are here, as an external organization, that can nudge and gently encourage planners and owners of transport solutions, to think about the problems people with limited mobility face every day. We can educate them on the difference simple gestures and shared information can make, and possess the technical know-how to guide them to implementing a solution.
A: What’s next for Wheelmap?
Next on our roadmap is to create a customizable white label version of Wheelmap, called Wheelmap Pro. This will enable any city, with an interest in mapping accessibility, to brand the interface with their own name in order to encourage use and input of accessibility data and aid mobility in any city. By enabling anyone who collects data or has data to share it with ease, it will become more commonplace.
Q: How have the elevator owners responded to Wheelmap pro and the idea that operational information about their assets has such a value, and can have such an impact in the daily lives of individuals?
A: Over 60% of the elevators in the world are manufactured, sold, maintained, and operated by just four companies. Three of those companies have responded very positively to Wheelmap and the incorporation of elevator data into the platform. So far, several public transport companies have already made their data accessible to Sozialhelden in order to present this in Wheelmap Pro.
Q: Alongside focusing on technical solutions, Sozialhelden also offers several physical solutions that go some way to addressing mobility and accessibility. Can you tell us about these?
A: The most obvious and quickest way to make an office, building or venue accessible to people with limited mobility is to provide a temporary ramp that eliminates the obstacle of one or two stairs. We currently sell two versions of an affordable physical ramp that would easily and immediately move the majority of places from inaccessible to accessible. To help with the integration of broken elevator data, we have also developed a hardware sensor that can be easily installed so that the live functionality of older, non-digitized elevators can also be shared and made available via our own API, to any application that might benefit from incorporating accessibility information.
Q: Why would you encourage anyone, regardless of whether they personally experience limited or impaired mobility, to map local places in Wheelmap?
A: Encouraging people to think about mobility and accessibility of public and private spaces is really important if we want to move to a scenario where we have equal accessibility. Anyone can contribute to Wheelmap, without the need to log in or register any personal information – and this is a simple but attractive feature that many users don’t even notice. A simple act of mapping the accessibility of a few locations in your hometown, on your work lunch break, or even when you go on holiday to a new place, can make a real contribution to this movement and a difference to those around you. In talking to business owners, you can also raise a great deal of awareness and in many cases, prompt simple measures to immediately make places accessible to everyone.