SEATTLE — Mapping the world's sidewalks for their accessibility is the lofty goal of the graduate students behind "Project Sidewalk." Just 15 days ago, Seattle became the third city where sidewalks are being mapped.
The information can be useful even to runners, who are often forced to run around obstacles along their routes. But certainly for someone in a wheelchair knowing where those obstacles are could mean the difference between getting where they're going or getting stuck.
When you see the world as Lori Bridgewater does, you see obstacles at nearly every turn.
"See, I'm pushing my chair all the way to the right," said Bridgewater. "It's not going. And that's why when I'm trying to figure it out, it's helpful to have a friend with me."
Manaswi Saha may be the best friend Bridgewater's never met.
"I've always been inspired by socially impactful projects," said Saha. "How accessible is a particular city?" asked Saha. "And how can we give that information to the public?"
The Ph.D. student at the University of Washington is hoping to help answer those questions through "Project Sidewalk."
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"We built this tool which is a crowd-sourcing based mapping tool," Saha said.
It's a kind of online game designed for ordinary users to help map a city's sidewalks.
"We are trying to map the accessibility of the world," she said.
And all of it can be done using Google Street views from any computer.
"Essentially, you virtually walk through city streets," said Saha, "In this case you see a Washington, D.C., street. You walk and survey both sides of the sidewalk and look for problems."
Problems like those Lori Bridgewater pointed out along 4th Avenue South.
"There's buses that are right next to the sidewalk," Bridgewater. "And when I go down in it to get across, I'm in their lane of travel."
"Project Sidewalk" began at the University of Maryland. So the other Washington was mapped first. Newberg, Oregon was next. Then just two weeks ago, Seattle was brought on board.
Saha was directed to the route Bridgewater takes to her paralegal job at the King County prosecutor's office. It hasn't been mapped yet. To get started, each user gets a tutorial on the four main obstacles to look for.
"So we give the introduction to what programs are missing curb ramps, sidewalk obstacles and surface problems," said Saha.
Each sidewalk is given a "passability" rating from 1 to 5.
"So in this case," she said, "they are asking us to do 2."
The areas with no sidewalks are mapped, too.
Right now "Project Sidewalk" is in the data collection phase. Next will come an app to help everyone navigate the world's sidewalks.
"But then the next point is how can we avoid even that," said Saha. "Like why aren't cities accessible by default? Or by design? Exactly. And what are the impediments?
It can't happen soon enough for Lori Bridgewater.
"The obstacles, they're always going to be there," she said. "But it's having the ability to know where they are and to maneuver gives me more freedom to be able to get out there by myself, rather than rely on someone else. So I think anybody would say having that independence is great."
Bridgewater says she hopes able bodied people will help with the mapping. So everyone can better see the obstacles she and millions of others face.
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