Google's Local Guides Go Accessible


Ed Price from the Office for Disability Issues talks about working with Google's Local Guides on Maps' accessibility information.


For many disabled people, the businesses and venues that most people take for granted aren’t accessible. A shop entrance which is up a couple of steps, a restaurant where the toilets are in the basement, or a bar where there are only standing bar tables are all a challenge for someone using a wheelchair to access. Many elements of the physical environment which it’s easy to take for granted or not notice can get in the way of others being able to shop, socialise and travel. In this video from Google, Michele Lee explains the everyday issues that she faces getting around Chicago, and her experience is pretty common across the world.


As well as being an issue for individuals, the lack of accessibility also represents a lost opportunity for businesses. There are 13.3 million people with a disability in the UK, which is more than the population of Belgium, and it is estimated that households with at least one disabled person in them have a spending power of £249bn. This is a huge number of customers that businesses are potentially missing out on if they are inaccessible.


I was recently invited along to Google’s London office to join in a Local Guides meet up, specifically focused on crowd sourcing accessibility information in Google Maps. Local Guides are people who voluntarily answer questions about places within Google Maps, such as opening hours, types of services offered, parking availability and so on. This information is then available to other users when they are looking at places as they search around an area. After discussing with the assembled Local Guides why accessibility information is important, we split off into groups and headed out for a “mapathon”, using the filter to find businesses and venues which didn’t yet have accessibility information and adding it.


Google have recently updated the Android version of Google Maps so that you can filter and identify places which don’t have any accessibility information associated with them. They have worked out that if each of its tens of millions of guides answers three questions every day for two weeks, they’ll have over two billion answers to help people across the world who depend on this information. Whilst some businesses and locations are good at making sure they have accessible facilities, even if they share the information on their websites, it’s really important this is then available on a mapping tool, such as Google Maps, so that when someone is searching for places to go, they can find a choice of venues that cater for their needs.


At the start of this journey, Google are currently focused on a small number of questions around wheelchair access, quoting the 65 million people across the world who use wheelchairs. What I particularly love about this instance of inclusive design is that the accessibility information will be useful to many more people, such as parents with buggies, older people with limited mobility, and even someone on crutches because they’ve broken their leg. Their website has some very simple guidelines about what accessibility means.


In future, this crowd-sourcing approach could be easily expanded to include a whole range of accessibility information. For now, this is an exciting first step on the way to making information about our physical environment available to those who need it, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how it develops.

Jasmin Khanom