A computerised navigation system has been developed to enable wheelchair users to select the most accessible routes around a town centre. It means a journey can be planned that avoids obstacles like cobbled streets, steep areas and steps.
The work has been carried out by a team led by Professor Hugh Matthews, at University College Northampton, with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
The ‘Wheelyroute’ system, believed to be the first of its kind in the world, will also allow urban planners to look at a town centre from the perspective of wheelchair users and to identify those areas that present access problems.
The prototype ‘Wheelyroute’ system is based on Northampton’s town centre but the researchers have ensured that the techniques used for assembling the necessary information are widely transferable. They believe that such navigation aids could be compiled relatively simply for any urban centre.
‘Ideally, in the future we would like to see the system available on hand-held navigation devices,’ said Professor Matthews. ‘At the moment it exists as a CD-ROM, and we have received funding to put it on a web server, enabling wheelchair users to access it over the internet.’ The system is also being made available in town centre locations in Northampton, such as the local library.
‘We wanted to create a navigational device which would inform people in wheelchairs about the best routes to take through a town centre, particularly if they were first time visitors,’ said Professor Matthews. ‘It was important that the system could be updated and was flexible, unlike a traditional map.’ To construct the system, the research team obtained first-hand evidence from people who use wheelchairs in Northampton about the problems they face. A written questionnaire was followed by detailed focus group sessions and field surveys, where researchers accompanied wheelchair users around the town.
Using a ‘geographical information system’ (GIS) the researchers were able to construct a profile of the city centre from the perspective of a wheelchair user. For each pavement, data on its gradient, surface and any obstacles were fed into the GIS.
Users of the system can reportedly key in details of whether the wheelchair is manual or motorised. If it is manual the user can indicate their level of fitness. They can then key in their starting point and various places they would like to visit.
The system can also be used by planners to see which parts of a town centre are ‘no-go’ areas for wheelchair users. ‘The GIS informs on current levels of accessibility throughout a town centre from the perspective of wheelchair users and not able-bodied planners,’ said Professor Matthews.
The ‘Wheelyroute’ system is one of the projects run through EPSRC’s EQUAL initiative. The role of EQUAL (Extending QUAlity Life) is to draw together different research areas to look at ways of extending the active period of people’s lives and avoiding or alleviating the effects of disability.