Work packages in the project – what do we have to do?
The project management is the responsibility of the staff of the Department of Geography and Regional Science, University of Graz, to guarantee a smooth flow of the research project as well as the proper achievement of the afore set milestones and project goals. It is necessary to define individual production workflows, a timetable as well as responsibilities for each design step: Who is responsible for what? When are certain work packages due? It is the same as building your own house: All craftspeople have to cooperate in order to guarantee a timely completion of the house – the floor tiler cannot start before the floor pavement is finished and dry. The same principle holds true for our project.
Cooperation and communication within the project team needs coordination, not only concerning the content development, but also with respect to budget calculations and costs. Additionally, there are organizational issues, such as partner meetings, which are relevant for the communication and exchange of intermediate results, the discussion of challenges, the development of solutions, and the agreement on subsequent steps. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of the project management to report to the funding agency. In ways2see, the funding agency is the Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG).
It is hard to imagine for sighted people, in which way people with visual impairment or blindness orient themselves, how they prepare their daily routes and finally how they get to certain destinations. In the beginning, way ahead of the programming and the realization of the Internet platform, it is important to analyze the special needs of people with visual impairment or blindness, in order to know about the expectations of the target/user group. It was extremely important for us to get an exact knowledge about the requirements and specifications of the user group – because only then will the potential users make use of the Internet platform!
In a first approach, Thomas Mathä collected numerous interviews with people with visual impairment or blindness, covering topics like mobility, barriers, orientation features and the use of assistive devices. Besides the target group itself, several mobility trainers were interviewed. Those trainers are responsible for the support of people with visual impairment or blindness by given them an intensive training on how to manage daily routes and routines – we were very glad to include their highly specialized expertise. It was extremely essential for the project team to widen each individual’s horizon in order to empathize with people with visual impairment or blindness. Therefore, Prof. Zimmermann-Janschitz and Mrs. Dückelmann made a process of self-awareness by covering short distances using a blindfold and utilizing a white cane in order to self-experience orientation possibilities and difficulties for people with visual impairment or blindness on their daily routes.
A first workshop – meeting with persons concerned
The first meeting together with the project team, persons from the target group and mobility trainers took place in the Odilien-Institute on October 15, 2015 - the "White cane safety day". The goal was to present the main issues and the content of the project ways2see as well as to profit from the experience of the future user group as a main input for the practicability of the Internet platform. More than 30 participants brought their valuable knowledge and ideas into a very intensive discussion – an extremely important practical basis for the development of the information platform. The discussion was conducted in four groups discussing (1) barriers and difficulties when walking on public roads and streets, (2) requests and desires for the information platform, (3) assistive devices and the navigation on webpages, and (4) readability issues for webpage. The workshop lasted the whole afternoon – a special thanks to all the engaged participants and to the Odilien-Institute for hosting us and for supporting our physical well-being.
Here are some fotos of the first workshop:
A second workshop – discussion about application details
Quite a long time after the first meeting, we had a second workshop with potential users of ways2see on June 22, 2017. Again, we had more than 20 participants, who worked intensively and provided their experiences. The first goal of this workshop was to get feedback about the usability, the handling and the screen reader suitability of the user interface. Moreover, we tried to learn more about the performance of the product in different environments (combination of operating systems, different Internet browsers and screen readers). In the second part of the workshop, we discussed the route descriptions in detail. The feedback was generally very positive, an exciting afternoon ended and we went back to the project work with numerous suggestions in the back of our minds. Special thanks to all the initiative and innovative participants of this workshop: Daniela Dold, MA, Sarah Gaicher, Julian Gimplinger, Sebastian Glanzer, Prof. Franz Griesbacher, Daniela Grießbauer, Gerhard Gschaider, Dipl.Päd. Marija Gschaider-Kraner, Anna-Maria Javornik, BEd Manfred Kohlfürst, Prof. DI (FH) Erich Könighofer, Christopher Kopel, Lisa Leski, Dipl.Päd. Franz Nagl, Lukas Raab, Ursula Raunig, Jens Sakelsek, BA, Sabrina Spitaler, DI Reinhard Urban, Elfriede Wachter, Melanie Zraunig. Of course, we would also like to thank the Odilien-Institute, director Mag. Rudolf Zangl, MBA for hosting our workshop and Thomas Matthä for the terrific moderation during this afternoon.
Some impressions from the second workshop:
The online questionnaire
To get a wider audience and to spread the information about the results of the workshop and the interviews, we developed an additional questionnaire with the goal of supplementing and eventually adjusting the gotten information. The questionnaire included questions on people’s individual ability to see, individual mobility issues, possible barriers as well as questions concerning orientation aids when dealing with unknown routes. With the support of the Austrian Federation of the Blind and Partially Sighted, around 950 questionnaires where sent out via email; the return rate was 11%. As a small incentive, we raffled two tickets for a performance (with audio description) at the Graz opera house on April 24, 2015. Those tickets were sponsored by the Odilien-Institute. A special thanks to all those who participated in our online questionnaire and special thanks to the Austrian and the Federal Federations of the Blind and Partially Sighted!
Living Lab – or to put it another way: testing, testing, testing
Of course, it is our ultimate goal that ways2see works precise and error-free, as well as that it will be widely used, as we do not want to produce useless research results, which eventually disappear in a drawer. To monitor the needs of the users during the final stage of the product development of ways2see, we have established a so called “Living Lab”. Of course, the project team makes the first tests with the user interface and the route descriptions, but as we are constantly involved in the development of ways2see, we are already routine-blinded and to some extent biased. In our Living Lab, a number of potential uses are testing the application. We are working with participants of our workshops who are willing to intensively work with the platform and test the usability of ways2see. The experiences of the Living Lab are exciting; they are helping us to reduce mistakes and to optimize ways2see.
Information about the platform and the software
What is a GIS?
The abbreviation GIS stands for Geographic Information System. But what is a Geographic Information System? What do we mean by this? The most important part of the GIS is a map. Additionally, in the background, a lot of information is stored in different tables. So, simply put, a GIS is a map with data tables in the background; e.g. a signal light is presented as a point in the map; in the table, you will find the information, if the signal is a normal signal or an acoustic signal. The specialty of the GIS is the spatial reference: this means that each point, each line and area is defined with coordinates, which are again stored in a database. It is like an address with ZIP Code, street name and number; with this information you know exactly where a house is located in the real world.
Additionally, GIS is also a software tool which is able to carry out an analysis. For example, we can compute how many inhabitants in a city live within a distance of five minutes to a certain bus stop; or you can optimize the location of a company by using GIS. Another example is the navigation system in our cars – here we also have a GIS running in the background. You can see that these possibilities for different analyses are making GIS a powerful tool.
But do not be afraid: ways2see is using a GIS only in the background – you as a user do not have to care about this complicated software. The Internet platform is accessing the GIS, it is also computing analyses, but for the user only the results are visible and of significance.
For our project ways2see we compute routes as well as descriptions of routes, and we present maps which are especially designed for people with visual impairment. We are using special network analyses routines – it is, for example, possible to compute a route between two given addresses, which is only using streets with sidewalks and acoustic signals.
Where does the data come from?
For our project ways2see we need a lot of very exact information. In a GIS we call them Geo data. It is important to mention, that for the city of Graz, no map is available showing sidewalks – those maps are only showing streets. Still, sidewalks are essential information for ways2see for the reason that people with visual impairment or blindness are using sidewalks for their daily routes. So where do we get the data for sidewalks from? There are different possibilities:
- First, some data is available on Internet free of charge. Municipalities, cities or other public authorities provide it as Open Government Data.
- Second, there is data, collected by private people, again published on Internet. This kind of data acquisition is called crowdsourcing. A well-known platform is Open Street Map. We can find many neighborhoods/districts, which are covered by lots of open data. The disadvantage of crowdsourcing is that neither the actuality nor the accuracy and precision are reliable and that the data is not available for all districts/neighborhoods.
- Third, additionally to data from public administration, municipalities and cities are collecting their own data sets. But they are not free of charge. Actually, they are very expensive. For our project, we could arrange a data exchange deal with the city of Graz.
- Fourth, there is data, which is absolutely not available yet. For ways2see we would need certain data urgently, e.g. the surface of the sidewalks, gates, fences or bollards. Therefore, we need to acquire data by on site mapping in the field. The team of the University of Graz, especially Simon Landauer and Jana Obermeier, are walking and cycling miles and miles through the city of Graz, drawing the important objects onto a real map and later transferring them into the GIS.
Why do we need the data in GIS?
The Internet platform ways2see will be able to present a route with POIs, hints, barriers etc. and will supplement this with the route description. Therefore, we need exact information on all the roads and streets, all barriers, dangerous spots (mailboxes, gates, fire hydrants etc.), and important hints (acoustic signals, crosswalks, orientation spots etc.). Additionally, the system will cover information about points of interest, facilities and institutions like shops, pharmacies, physicians, recreational offers etc. In order to present them on the Internet platform, we need all these information in the system.
What is a network analysis in a GIS?
In our project ways2see, the GIS network analyses are central in order to analyze the street-, road- and sidewalk network of the city of Graz. This is necessary to compute the routes between different addresses. However, ways2see has much more potential;
it is able to compute the best route, it is able to compute the shortest distance to a desired address/destination. By using different profiles and/or modulation, the user can choose which barriers or dangerous spots should be avoided and/or which hints should be reported. In addition, ways2see is also able to locate closest facilities like supermarkets, pharmacy, physicians etc. and describe the best way to get there.
The design of the map and the creation of suitable symbols
Numerous data, for example sidewalks, crossings, acoustic signals, gates, stairs etc. need to be edited and processed. These data is the basis for the map. Therefore, the basic map needs to be prepared according to the prerequisites of the user group. The project team decided not to use classic/standard colors, where green spaces and parks are green, buildings are grey and streets are black. Instead, we are using alternative colors to emphasize contrasts and differentiate between basic information features of the map – creeks and rivers, buildings, roads and streets as well as green spaces. At first glance, the map seems to be unusual and irritating, but it is the result of information based on the specific needs for map reading by our users with visual impairment.
Moreover, the design of the symbols is stressing the principle, that readability and accuracy of differentiation is more important than variety and aesthetics. Therefore, we abstained from fine representations and tried to provide recognizable and distinguishable symbols – still, attractive and with a high recognition value.
In addition, the user interface is customized to the requirements of people with visual impairment or blindness. Few icons enable a quick and intuitive navigation of the webpage; the webpage is suitable for screen reader and can be operated by keyboard. This is the most important challenge for the programming as the combination of different versions of web browsers, screen readers and operating systems is extremely hard to handle. The focus of the first development phase was given to the browser Internet Explorer 11 and the screen readers Jaws 18 und NVDA 21.
Expert opinion is important
It is not only the project team and the Living Lab members which are testing ways2see; we have also asked an external expert to review our application. Dr. Kenneth Field, a cartographer, working with Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), located in Redlands, CA (USA), evaluated the product, pointing out strengths, weaknesses and potentials. The results of the evaluation are part of the implementation during the final phase of the project ways2see.