Arne Andres uses a power wheelchair, so an out-of-service elevator can seriously screw up his day if he doesn’t know about it before setting out.
A dead lift at the Southgate LRT station, for example, prevents Andres from getting up to the pedway that is the only mall access from the station. The mall’s only a few metres from the LRT station, but when the elevator is out it might as well be across a canyon. Andres has to reboard the train, ride five kilometres south to Century Park, and wait for a northbound bus to take him back to a ground-level mall entrance.
“It’s frustrating and there’s nothing I can do. Whatever I plan to do for that particular day has to be changed, and I just have to face that fact,” says the University of Alberta grad student.
While snow and ice barriers melt away with the spring season, construction and maintenance projects across the city present persistent challenges.
“Construction happens during the spring and summer, so it’s really hard to navigate, especially in the downtown area. And now that we’re building all the LRTs, it’s really hard to move around,” Andres says.
The Atlas, a new app developed by Edmonton startup Click&Push Accessibility, aims to alleviate some of these challenges. It maps crowdsourced information about mobility obstacles so users can prepare for their journeys before leaving home.
Andres was one of about 70 Edmontonians who tested the app (it’s now available to all U of A students). He also serves as one of the startup’s directors.
Click&Push Accessibility president Martin Ferguson-Pell explains the idea for The Atlas sprung from work being done in his University of Alberta lab on trying to reduce the risk of overuse injuries in wheelchair users. Ferguson-Pell is also a professor in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine.
“When people are in public spaces, they’re experiencing challenges of accessibility, where they may be able to plan ahead and avoid some of the barriers if they were made aware of them,” he says.
His hope is that those creating the mobility barriers — construction companies, for example — will participate in crowdsourcing data and removing barriers.
Ultimately, he hopes they’ll help finance the company.
“Number one, you get a competitive advantage when you’re bidding for a contract if you can demonstrate that you’re sensitive to accessibility issues,” Ferguson-Pell says. “It’s becoming more and more important in Canada that you address accessibility issues if you’re running a business. So it gives the company a competitive advantage if they can demonstrate they’re working with an organization like Click&Push in Alberta.
“The second part of it is, they have a communication problem — they’re not really talking to people with accessibility challenges. Click&Push and The Atlas can connect them to that community, so when they’re planning their project, they’re talking to the people who are going to be affected.”
Ferguson-Pell is driven by the opportunities ahead, and the chance to demonstrate how new technologies can help tackle complex problems in ways that previously weren’t possible.
“They’re very satisfying problems to work on because you could have a real social impact, and that has always been a big motivator for me. They’re also opportunities to apply technology to what appear on the surface to be everyday problems until you unravel them. Suddenly you realize that wheelchair accessibility involves artificial intelligence. That’s what I love — making those connections between challenging social impact problems and opportunities that advanced technologies can offer to solve them. Put those two things together, that’s the place I like to be.”
Andres says the app will make a real difference in people’s lives by helping them plan their days.
“This is really, really close to my heart,” he says.
Ferguson-Pell says if the company gets buy in, the app could be available in app stores by the summer. He adds future versions of The Atlas might also be able to address the original issue of overuse injuries that led to its creation, including information about the level of exertion required for wheelchair users to get around particular areas.
This article appears in the May 2023 issue of Edify