The Trip Planning team is one of several teams of computer science majors at Brandeis University taking an independent study course overseen by Professor Pito Salas. The independent study consists of several Brandeis teams partnering with businesses and organizations to creatively solve a tech-related problem and is usually offered each semester.
The Trip Planning Project is the result of collaboration between the City of Boston Mayor's Commission for Persons with Disabilities and a team of four Brandeis University students. The City of Boston was interested in the creation of a Google Maps transit option for users with disabilities to navigate safely and predictably around Boston and worked with the Brandeis students to create a deliverable that fit their needs.
While beautiful, Boston is an old city that was not built with accessibility in mind. Many streets in Boston, especially near Downtown Crossing, are paved with cobblestones, are unpredictably sloped, or are very narrow. Because of this, navigating around Boston becomes a much more difficult task than it should be, even for people without mobility disabilities. To alleviate the inconveniences of navigating around Boston for people with disabilities, the MBTA provides a service called The Ride, which allows people with disabilities to use on-call transportation from anywhere in Boston for a lower fee than a cab or Uber.
The Ride is an amazing initiative and service, but what about shorter trips to nearby locations like the grocery store? People with disabilities will opt to travel alone rather than take The Ride, and will tend to take routes they know are accessible that they have found through trial-and-error.
Since the routes people tend to take are tried-and-true paths, when travelling to a location they have never been to before, how can a person know if the path suggested to them by Google Maps is traversable? Similarly, what about visitors to Boston who have not previously been to the city? No widely used map application or website incorporates accessibility into their directions algorithms, and there is no current system in place for determining traversable routes.
This project is a small step in a larger initiative by the City of Boston to increase accessibility. We have begun to address the problem of traversable sidewalk routes in Boston and provide a solution for the Commission for Persons with Disabilities to implement and distribute to Boston residents and visitors.
Our team researched and documented the trip-planning needs of those who would be using this product. This includes the information that would be needed, how it would be obtained, and feedback regarding what would be considered traversable.
This was the main focus of our project since we had to obtain the most updated and comprehensive data sets before continuing to implement a proof of concept. Knowing the importance of having an efficient database standardization, we concentrated most of our efforts on developing a standard that would fit our needs.
WWe also contacted other cities to partner with and adopt our data standardization. We learned a lot about their approaches, priorities, and problems in regards to making their cities more open and accessible.
We did not have the opportunity to pitch our idea for incorporating our data standardization into Google Maps as a GTFS-style feed. However, we hope that any team that continues this project in the future will be able to use the data we have collected to prove the importance of having an accessibility option in Google Maps.
We built a basic proof of concept that works with the current dataset that we have been provided, and routes around known barriers. It is similar to the Boston Accessible website that had been previously created by the City of Boston, but instead of just displaying barriers and relying on the user to create their own routes, our implementation automatically routes around known barriers.
We built our implementation using Google Maps for the mapping functionality, and added routes and barriers on top as ArcGIS layers. ArcGIS is a geographic information system (GIS) for working with maps and geographic information. The ArcGIS features allowed us to incorporate barriers, both temporary and permanent, that would then re-route the next shortest path from the user’s origin to their destination.
In defining barriers, we distinguished between permanent barriers and user-inputted barriers. Permanent barriers are obstacles that the system determines, based on the data it has about that location, would prevent the user from traveling at that point. All of the ramp points are currently plotted as permanent barrier points, which are shown in red icons. Users are ensured that where there are permanent barriers, the system will never generate a route that would cross those points. We then added a feature for allowing the user to add his or her own barriers, which are displayed with yellow icons. The ability for a user to interact with the system in this way is important in cases where there are barriers that do not appear on the map and the user either runs into one or knows that there is one in a certain location.