Notes from #Hack4Access, part of National Day of Civic Hacking

often times the disabled were offered help without being asked what they needed.

-disabled Philadelphian at the hackathon

A couple of weeks ago, I participated in the #Hack4Access Hackathon, Philly’s event around the National Day of Civic Hacking, meant to improve communities and the governments that serve them. This get together was unique in that the technology building focus was geared towards helping the aging and disabled.

I went into the day with a project already in mind. I was planning on extending the geojson map data specification to include some meta data for text-to-speech. I was going to use my construction permits over time map as a prototype.

I’ve been focused on playing with maps for the past 6 months. They tell a big story very quickly when people first look at them. I think that’s what’s appealing about it, but it’s totally lost on the visually impaired. They can also contain information relevant to visually impaired Philadelphians, but for whom they might not be able to absorb. For instance, with the construction permits map, someone with sight issues might want to find out how their neighborhood rates alongside others, is construction increasing, stagnant or declining? That information might be useful. So I was thinking about ways to help them interact with the data. I was thinking I’d hook up text-to-speech somehow over the coming weekend.

But within an hour of getting there, I spoke with a member of the disabled community who said that often times the disabled were offered help without being asked what they needed. That really sunk in to me, and since there was no visually impaired people at the event for me to talk to and there were plenty of people in wheel chairs, I had to pocket my text-to-speech idea.

So I hopped onto a team building off of James Tyack’s already created website Unlock Philly. In a previous hackathon and since, James had collected data on Septa transit stations that didn’t have wheelchair accessibility and collected elevator outages to highlight the difficulties of traversing the city by transit when you’re disabled.

I don’t think we can consider Philadelphia a grand city if it excludes anyone. So we rallied around the idea of leveraging technology and data to help people with physical disabilities.

Some team members scraped together information about disabled accessible housing, Unlock Philly was modified to allow more media on station information pages, including a video of how you’d traverse it in a wheelchair.



We had a film maker on the team, confined to a wheelchair, who brought a lot of insight into what’s it like to want to move and participate in the city but needing to navigate it with a wheelchair:

  • He talked about things like not being able to rent most apartments, fitting through doors was a concern.
  • He needed to plan his routes sometimes, using Google Street View to see if he’d need to get up steps.
  • He and his friend spoke about how paratransit was allowed to pick you up an hour before or hour after your scheduled time, but if they get there and you’re five minutes late, they’ll leave. They’re also allowed to make other stops if they’re close to other pickups.
  • on Sunday morning, he and his friend had to wait as a bus passed because it already had one wheelchair rider. The buses only have the capacity for two wheelchairs.
  • sometimes, city accomodations for wheelchairs is at odds with those for the visually impaired. Rumblestrips on the edges of transit platforms, meant to notify the visually impaired that they’re close to the edge, make those in wheel chairs “jiggle”. And it’s easier to get into and out of the street from the sidewalk with curb cuts, but without a sharp drop that is easy to determine with a cane, the visually impaired have a harder time knowing when they’ve reached the street

I spent my two days creating an overlay on top of Google Maps transit directions so there’d be an X over stations that wouldn’t accomodate wheelchairs. Incidentilly, you can’t transfer at City Hall between the Market Frankford El and Broad Street Line, effectively cutting off half of the city(The one bright side I heard was that all of Septa’s buses are handicapped accessible). The map was an attempt to show Google that you need to consider other types of transit riders in the maps it provides. All the data is there and I got a nice chunk done during a weekend. Come on Google!nowheelchair-screenshot

I’m planning on building out the map to show time differences between a “regular” rider and one in a wheelchair. I’d like to highlight to city planners and transit enthusiasts that there are others that should get a thoughtful pause when designing in the future.

My biggest takeaway was how important it is to talk to the those impacted by your civic projects. In retrospect, going into the event wanting to help the visually impaired read maps without having spoken to any was presumptuous. It’s a waste of my time, a possible missed opportunity for the effort and presumptuous. It’s a mistake I won’t make again.

Reporter Julian Taub attended both days and wrote about it for Fast Company.

Here’s a Storify: