PhD Research: Designing technologies to support open space leisure experiences of blind and partially sighted people
Project Timeline: 2017 - 2021
Open spaces such as parks and the countryside are great for exploration, relaxation, socialising, and physical activity. But engagement by blind and partially sighted (BPSP) is low. In part this is because the A to B navigation is poor and so reaching the entrance of open spaces is a challenge. However, the limited wayfinding signage, landmarks and cues to enable BPSPs to explore the open space once inside is possibly the most challenging aspect of making open spaces accessible. This is compounded by a general lack of facilities to support the blind visitors in exploring open spaces.
To better understand the experiences of blind and partially sighted people in open spaces and their needs for participating in open space leisure activities, we take a qualitative approach in this project, conducting qualitative surveys, interviews, focus groups, and ethnographic observation studies with blind and partially sighted people online and in person.
The PLACES Framework
Initially, we aimed to identify the needs of BPSP at the plan, access, and engage stages of their leisure experiences and the barriers they faced, mapped to the outdoor recreation model, to investigate how current technology addresses these needs, through our research we learned that the for an engaged and enjoyable leisure experience, these needs go beyond the space or the leisure activity itself. This lead to the development of the PLACES framework (PLan, Access, Contribute, Engage, and Share) which builds on the outdoor leisure experience model by Clawson , proposing a key element of 'Contribution'.
In PLACES, ‘Plan’ incorporates the needs of BPSP when preparing for a trip, ‘Access’ incorporates both transport to and from the venue as well as wayfinding within the park. Further, we consider ‘Engage' as a distinct element as the evidence from our study shows that the barriers experienced by BPSP in open spaces may hinder participation in the on-site activity. Finally, ‘Share and recollect’ incorporates both personal recollection and sharing leisure experiences with others and expands the idea of ‘sharing to cultivate engagement within the BPSP community’.
The idea of ‘Contribution’ - of people wishing to contribute to each stage of the leisure experience emerged as an overarching concept across the four stages. Participants desired to contribute to planning by sharing their interests and concerns with their companions. They also wanted to collaboratively make decisions about where to go, how to get there, where to stay (for longer trips), etc. Being able to contribute planning would not only give BPSP more ‘say’ in decision-making, but they would also learn more about the place they’re going to, which would lead to more independence in ‘Access’. Furthermore, participants experienced ‘engagement’ as a social activity. They enjoyed co-creating shared sensory experiences with their companions and felt their contribution was validated as they had an enhanced auditory, tactile, and olfactory experience compared to their companions – they created interdependent experiences. Therefore, in the final framework, ‘Contribute (C)’ is presented as a key element.
How can technology help?
There is huge potential for mobile technology to support BPSP's needs in each stage of the PLACES leisure experience. Our findings revealed that participants actively used apps and devices in their homes and outdoors for independent mobility. They also used accessible websites and public transportation apps for planning their journeys and map apps for real-time navigation instructions. These apps are helpful in getting BPSP from their homes to public transport and finally near the park entrance but not once inside the park.
One of the biggest challenges BPSP currently experience when using the navigation apps is not being able to navigate inside the parks due to the lack of appropriate navigation data of walking paths within parks. Moreover, currently available technologies do not support BPSP in exploring the park environment, engaging in leisure activities, and discovering the surrounding nature in the moment. Mobile apps such as PictureThis, PlantSnap, iNaturalist, and PlantNet are among many apps that aim to identify plants from an image search. Warblr (also referred to as ‘Shazam for birds’), BirdUp, and Chirp! are among the few that recognize birdsong from an audio recording. Although there is a lack of formal evidence of accessibility, these apps indicate growth in research and design of technologies for engaging with nature.
Another important challenge is the availability of inclusive information about park accessibility for BPSP. One such example is Accessable which provides accessibility information about public places including restaurants, hotels, cinemas, and universities. The information, however, is limited to a small number of locations in the UK. In this space, crowdsourcing accessible information from BPSP about their experiences of parks and other public spaces can create more leisure opportunities for BPSP and people with disabilities.
Therefore, we are creating an accessible crowdsourced mapping system for BPSP to contribute their experience of visiting a park or open space and share these experiences in the forms of textual information, photos, sound bites, and videos to enable other people to enjoy these experiences anywhere in the world.
The impact of technologies for better access to open spaces could be aptly summed up in a quote by one of the research participants
“It would just be liberating and fantastically independent. […] You could say, 'oh that forest in the distance over there is such and such forest and if we carry on 2 miles along this route then we're gonna get to a café.’ So, it enables you to inform other people or have better conversations with those around you that can see. So, you can join in a bit more.”
This project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
Prof. Nadia Berthouze
Dr. Aneesha Singh