Nearby Explorer Online screenshots | Source: Google Play Store

Why This Audio Map for the Blind Offers an Open-Data Roadmap for the Country

Imagine you’re blind. You have a smartphone, and you’re trying to find your own way to a spot downtown. To get there you’ll need precise voice directions to specific building numbers, but you can’t find an app that meets the challenge.

Next, imagine you’re an app-maker who wants to provide the most accurate navigation at the lowest cost ​to seeing-impaired customers. To do that you’ll need access to an accurate database of street addresses. While cities routinely collect this information, it isn’t necessarily publicly available.

Now a pioneering open data project in Louisville, Kentucky is lighting a torch to show cities, civic tech enthusiasts, and local businesses how to make sure assistive technology like this is easily and cheaply available. And its methods are so simple that they can applied to many more problems where open public data can make a difference.

Two years ago, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer signed into law an executive order making all municipal public information “open by default.” Louisville wasn’t alone in taking this step: Since 2009, many governments around the world, local and national, have taken the step of opening civic data. Often, one of the stated goals of openness is driving economic growth; the hope is that startups will find something interesting in the released datasets that will fuel new businesses. Given the limited resources of government, however, the released data may not match up with the needs of tech developers. The undesirable result: a spray of datasets triggering little interest.

In Louisville, things are working differently.

Here’s the context: A local business, the American Printing House for the Blind, has been creating products for use by the blind and visually impaired since 1858 (before both the Civil War and the Kentucky Derby, as a matter of fact). APH had developed an Android app called Nearby Explorer that took visual maps and rendered information from them in audio form, making it possible for visually-impaired users to hear about the things around them. For example, they could find their own way to a specific street address just by listening to the app.

Early versions of Nearby Explorer relied on expensive licensed proprietary maps that had a couple of downsides. For starters, users need to download 4GB of data to their phones in order to use the app offline. And the maps included estimations of building numbers based on the starting- and ending-numbers for particular blocks, rather than actual addresses. APH wanted to find an open, lightweight, cheaper, and more accurate source of information to serve Nearby Explorer users in its hometown of Louisville.

The clear option: OpenStreetMap, the open-source mapping tool that has been used to crowdsource maps all over the world. (Google Maps covers Louisville and includes accurate building numbers, but Google limits the number of times each day users of its data can ping its servers with queries, and usually charges for use of its API. CityLab’s Laura Bliss has written about the global map competitive realm here.)

In order to update the OpenStreetMap map of Louisville with geocoded building street number data — and make the app available online so that a giant data download wasn’t required — APH needed two things: (1) access to accurate building data and (2) volunteer energy aimed at gluing that information to the OpenStreetMap template.

A physical meeting brought all these elements together. Last December, the local Louisville Code for America brigade — called the Civic Data Alliance, co-founded by Michael Schnuerle — held one of its monthly meetups. In the room were representatives of the City of Louisville and people from APH. According to Schnuerle, the APH people said, “Hey, we have this Nearby Explorer app. We’d like to get the data we need in the right format and in a cost-effective way to help people navigate to points of interest and addresses around the city.” Someone who works with geolocated data for the City of Louisville said, “We could get the city to release building footprint data.” And a project was born.

Louisville, like most cities, has data about the outlines of its buildings — there are 500,000 buildings in the county, according to Schnuerle. It also has building address numbers for every parcel in the area. Schnuerle and his colleagues asked the city to publish both of those separate datasets online in the city open data portal.

Remember “open by default”? The city was happy to make this data public: “Really, for us, it’s a perfect example of citizens helping us prioritize data sets that are going to be of value for them,” Louisville Chief of Performance and Technology Theresa Reno-Weber says. She points out that Mayor Fischer and other city officials are often in the room at Civic Data Alliance meetings for just this reason.

Schnuerle and the Civic Data Alliance then trained dozens of volunteers — who did not have to be coders, but did need to be able to follow directions — to spend hundreds of hours this past spring carefully merging the city databases and then uploading accurate geolocated address information for Louisville building footprints into OpenStreetMap.

Rob Meredith, of the American Printing House, is pleased: “They did a really bang-up job with this.” As a direct result of the volunteers’ work, APH recently released a free online version of Nearby Explorer. And the company is now on track to release an iOS version of the app that will reach far more visually-impaired people: according to Meredith, “It turns out that, in the blind market, the iOS population is probably ten or twenty times the Android population.” The iOS version, Meredith says, will be even more OpenStreetMap-centric than the Android version, which still uses elements of proprietary maps. “We think the OpenStreetMap data is actually a little bit more accurate than even Google data,” Meredith says proudly.

What’s next? In Louisville, even more data — including information about stoplights and stop signs — is already being made available by the city that could be useful in Nearby Explorer. Meredith says he’d like to have trash cans, mail boxes, and walkways reflected in the app as well. Even now, though, users of the free version of Nearby Explorer in Louisville will have a better experience with the app than people in Boston.

There are lessons here for everyone involved. Any Code for America brigade or other civic tech meet-up could work on enriching local OpenStreetMap to make the data more useful to the many local products and services that could use it. As Schnuerle says, “There are all these other ancillary uses for OpenStreetMap.” In particular, the American Printing House for the Blind wants local brigades to get the word out about Nearby Explorer — APH does not “have a way to contact a mass amount of people in cities across the country and say ‘Here’s what we need to do,’” according to Meredith, but civic tech people do — and those local civic tech enthusiasts could make sure their cities’ versions of Nearby Explorer aremore useful. Schnuerle and the Civic Data Alliance are already making sure this is happening in places like Cupertino, Austin, Honolulu, and Puerto Rico.

Most importantly, the Louisville story highlights the enabling role city government can play in civic tech development when the parties involved are talking to one another. As Reno-Weber puts it, “It’s a story that shows the value of open data for the citizenry.”