Every person with a disability has the right to access indoor and outdoor spaces. Simple enough in theory. In practice, accessing these spaces is near impossible without extensive local knowledge. Which street crossings have audio cues? Which route can one take to avoid stairs? Access to this information is as critical as the infrastructure itself.
Pacific Connect brings together technology leaders from across the Pacific to create solutions to such problems. At a 2019 Pacific Connect Dialogue, the Mobile Me project was born – with a goal to map accessible locations across Suva, Fiji. We were thrilled to join the Mobile Me team to design and develop a solution.
I've got a personal connection to Fiji – having lived there as a kid – so the chance to help out in a small way was great. I'm always interested in super practical uses of technology that help real people in their everyday lives.
Steve Roberts (Tech Lead, Common Code)
We began by exploring who our users would be. At a high level, we had two: people who would collect the accessibility data, and people who would consume it.
We knew we’d have a group of volunteers in Fiji who would physically walk the streets and find accessible locations. These volunteers would have minimal training, and use mobile devices with limited internet connectivity. Given this, we decided to leverage an existing tool – one with comprehensive support documentation.
We chose the existing Epicollect app for data collection as it was easily adapted to suit our needs, but it also had a handy offline feature, where data could be stored and uploaded later when you had a better internet connection.
We focused on creating a bespoke solution for our other users: those who wanted to view the collected data. People with a disability could use it to better plan their travel. Government organisations could make more educated infrastructure decisions. And, ideally, the Mobile Me team could use it to secure additional funding – supporting the continued growth of the project.
An interesting consideration was that a very public launch had been planned. A crowd would watch the data collection as it happened. That meant our design needed to be viewable – and more importantly, engaging – from a distance.
Hanna Burrows (Product Manager, Common Code)
We agreed a map-based web app would be the most appropriate solution. Maps are visually familiar – it’s almost universally understood that a marker on a map represents a physical location. We chose bright contrasting colours to represent locations on the map so changes would be visible from a distance.
We also took care to ensure the map was accessible by people with low vision or blindness. The text-based list of locations can be read aloud by screen readers. The icons help users with red-green colourblindness distinguish between marker types.
For development, we decided to leverage a React framework (Next.js) and an open source mapping platform (Mapbox). This enabled us to quickly develop something valuable, and provided a reasonable level of stability. The location data itself was collected via the Epicollect app and accessed via their APIs.
With the basic implementation in place, we thoroughly tested the end-to-end experience. We walked around our own neighbourhood in Melbourne, recording accessible locations, and reviewing how they appeared on the map. We also guided the team in Fiji through their own testing and provided support documentation for their volunteers.
We had two main concerns – connection speed/reliability and GPS accuracy.
It was critical that the map worked well in varied network conditions. We built the map to be reasonably lightweight, so it didn’t require a powerful connection to load. We also periodically requested data from the Epicollect API, and ensured these requests would continue after an internet dropout occurred.
While we continued to automatically determine GPS coordinates for each location entry, we also asked volunteers to categorise by street name. This ensured we still had reliable data if the GPS coordinates weren’t consistently accurate.
On the International Day of Disabled Persons (2019), we launched. Volunteers from across Fiji participated in a “mapathon” – a coordinated data collection effort across central Suva. Accessible locations recorded by the volunteers were immediately visible on the map.
The event was a resounding success. Not only did the Mobile Me project bring much-needed accessibility data to the community – it generated empathy for people of Fiji with disabilities.
It was a fantastic event which I had the pleasure to experience in person. Thanks to the Common Code team for their work to develop the tech. There are now opportunities to develop the technology for further application across the Pacific – and to continue the momentum to support accessibility improvements for people with disabilities.
Tina Briggs (Program Manager, Pacific Connect)
We were absolutely thrilled to work with the Mobile Me team on this project. There’s something satisfying about seeing a simple solution solve a real problem, especially when it can positively impact so many lives. Thank you to the Mobile Me team for having us onboard – we can’t wait to see what comes next!
Do you need a solution for a real-world problem? We’d love to help. Let’s chat about working together.