Over the last decade, the process of locating stores, movie theaters and office buildings has changed dramatically. Starting with Mapquest and Yahoo! Maps, people could type in addresses on their web browsers and automatically create a map of the location, instead of consulting old and dog-eared foldout maps or asking for directions. A few years later, Google Maps added names of stores, offices, public transit locations, and landmarks to its online map database, making it convenient for people to search for the nearest Starbucks or the best Indian restaurant in the neighborhood.
Yet, as with any new technological development, accessibility often takes a back seat. There is little information in the native Google Maps, Mapquest, and Bing databases on locations which are accessible to people with disabilities, especially those who use wheelchairs. The online maps provided a helpful location tool for wheelchair users, but little to go on beyond that. One of the major challenges of planning a trip across the country or around the block is making sure the venues are accessible to wheelchairs. It is often frustrating for wheelchair users who, even after much research, discover upon arriving at their destination that it is not accessible.
Enter Raul Krauthausen. A wheelchair user, he developed an innovative application, Wheelmap, that enables wheelchair users to locate accessible places, and even report on locations that are not accessible. Based in Germany, where Krauthausen resides, the application is primarily focused on German cities, but includes locations around the world overlaid on a global world map. Utilizing the OpenStreetMap database, each location data point on Wheelmap is rated fully accessible, partially accessible, or not accessible. As of the date of this publication, there is accessibility data on Wheelmap on over 40,000 places around the world, 58% of which are fully accessible.
Wheelmap can be accessed on the Web and through the iPhone, and is available in six languages including German and English. The most powerful feature of Wheelmap is its Wiki-style platform, which enables registered users to enter information about the accessibility level of the locations they visit. This functionality is most effective on the iPhone app, where users on-location can find accessible buildings, and rate the level of accessibility in real-time. It is a perfect example of an application whose database becomes more accurate and informative through the contributions of its users.
If Wheelmap continues to grow its number of users and data points, it potentially delivers at least two powerful tools, and perhaps more. Businesses rated inaccessible on Wheelmap’s platform would be incentivized to become more accessible to its customers. Event organizers would find Wheelmap an effective tool to ensure that every venue is accessible when planning a complex event. What other benefits? It is hard to imagine — then again, as with any pioneering piece of technology, additional benefits become obvious only after enough people use Wheelmap. Raul Krauthausen’s application has already achieved its most important benefit: enabling people with wheelchairs and other mobility impairments to quickly, effectively, and conveniently find access with less effort and stress than ever before.