Bus stop app for visually impaired got start on the street

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Genesis of innovation

Aligning with the needs of users is something of a motto for Oates, who was CIO at Massachusetts’ state government before joining Perkins a year ago. Before his role with the state, he led the IT team at the Boston city government, where he launched Citizens Connect, a mobile app that lets Bostonians report issues on the street, like potholes or graffiti, to City Hall.

Bill Oates

Oates and Aguiar, who has done tenures at network-security company RSA and Sun Microsystems, are a part of a new front at Perkins, which has been teaching people who are blind or visually impaired for 187 years. The school’s president, Dave Power, a former tech executive and venture capitalist, brought the pair on board to bring Perkins Solutions, which ships Braille writers and other devices to 170 countries, into the 21st century, aiming to incorporate a range of new technologies that will help people improve their lives.

To get started on her first major project at Perkins, Aguiar validated Becker’s bus woes with others on campus and then started looking into a bus-stop-finding technology. She researched GPS, its potential and limitations and what technologies could be used to increase its micro-navigation accuracy — pinpointing things like bike racks and newspaper boxes that people who are blind or visually impaired could use to help them locate something as specific as a bus stop sign. Beacon technology, which broadcasts location-based signals, was a consideration, as were camera recognition and machine-learning algorithms. But those would require lots of piloting — and lots of cash.

Joann Becker, a technology specialist at Perkins Solutions, walks toward a bus stop in Watertown, Mass.

At around the same time, Aguiar learned about an initiative from Google.org, the search engine giant’s philanthropic arm, that gave grant money to projects that aimed to improve life for people with disabilities. In 2013, Google had bought Waze, an Israeli company with a mapping system based on user-submitted details. Crowdsourcing — in Perkins’ case, getting people to help flesh out bus stop navigation routes — would be relatively cheap, since it wouldn’t require equipping physical infrastructure with devices. And, important when considering a transportation system with 8,000 bus stops, it could scale.

“[I] thought, ‘Wow, what if we put in for that and got some funding to actually try an approach around crowdsourcing?’” Aguiar said.