“There really shouldn’t be any need for us!”
Wheelmap displays accessible places and obstacles. The non-profit data project makes everyday life easier for wheelchair users. SOZIALHELDEN (Social Heroes), the organisation running it, is also seeking to generate political impetus.
If you are dependent on wheels, you automatically see the world differently. This is also true of Svenja Heinecke, even though she is not a wheelchair user. A native of Berlin, she has been dealing with annoying steps, narrow passages and broken lifts for many years in her activities for Wheelmap. This online map now shows places all over the world that are accessible to wheelchair users as well as the obstacles that block their paths.
It is a digital flagship innovation for the benefit of the common good launched by an organisation known as SOZIALHELDEN. Funded with prize money, grants and donations, it was established in 2010 and is now celebrating its tenth anniversary. The target group comprises the roughly 1.6 million people in Germany who are dependent on a wheelchair.
Small barriers wreck even the best-kept diary
Free of charge, it helps people with reduced mobility to access public spaces, move freely around them and overcome the obstacles that can be found everywhere in daily life: a flight of stairs without a lift is all it takes for you to miss your connecting train. Three steps up into the restaurant mean going somewhere else for lunch. No lavatory with sufficient space for your wheelchair? Then you can forget going to that club.
Svenja Heinecke is Community Manager and, in this capacity, the central point of contact for Wheelmap. All the data fed into the map is provided by the users, who also report and correct any errors. “We cannot send out employees for a worldwide map, which is why – like Wikipedia – it’s up to the users to solve all the problems.” And the results are nothing short of impressive: each year, 100,000 new places are added to the map.
The original idea came from Raul Krauthausen, who founded SOZIALHELDEN together with Jan Mörsch. Krauthausen was annoyed because he could never be sure of reaching his next appointment on time with his e-wheelchair, constantly having to anticipate detours. So, together with software developer Holger Dieterich, he developed Wheelmap.
The data belongs to everyone
From the outset, it was based on OpenStreetMap as this project consists of open-source geodata. “As a non-profit organisation, we work on principle with data that is available in the public domain,” explains Svenja Heinecke. She goes on to say that this sort of solution is sustainable as all the data belongs to the community rather than a single software group, which could suddenly pull the plug on it. One positive side effect is that users of OpenStreetMap feed Wheelmap with accessibility data, which is also incorporated in other applications based on OpenStreetMap.
As it is, networking and integrating are matters very close to SOZIALHELDEN’s heart. “All our projects aim to bring people together. We always want to use synergistic effects to the best possible extent,” says Heinecke. After all, benefits for the common good – and never economic returns – are at the core of everything they do.
Accumulating knowledge via many helpers
Svenja Heinecke and her colleagues are going one step further with networking: SOZIALHELDEN is now linking far more information than merely geodata in its Accessibility Cloud. This is where live data from 3,300 lifts in Germany, ratings from the Foursquare recommendation service and many other sources are collected.
The benefits offered by Wheelmap go far beyond its original purpose – its developers are now taking accessibility issues to the administrative authorities. Thus, the administrative district of Böblingen sent out school classes to collect data on places between 2014 and 2017, while the district of Olpe in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia also sought help from SOZIALHELDEN in its efforts to map the local region. In an ageing society, a city without steps is more important than ever and people with walkers can also benefit from the map.
AI could help with route planning
Even after ten years, the Wheelmap project is still developing and pursuing a clear vision. Looking forward, the aim is for wheelchair users not only to view places but also to plan fully accessible routes. However, this requires a lot of additional data as literally every kerb counts.
Svenja Heinecke’s idea is to use artificial intelligence. Detailed 360-degree views of streets are often already available. What is missing are clever systems that can identify obstacles in the mass of images. “AI offers growing potential for us in this respect,” says Heinecke, although she also admits that the small team currently has far more questions than solutions.
Will Wheelmap ever be finished? Heinecke certainly hopes so, saying, “It would be better if there were no need for us at all any more.” As she puts it, the goal has to be a world in which accessibility is the standard. “Projects for the common good such as ours provide the impetus for necessary political change.”