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SEATTLE One Bus Away became one of the most popular mobile apps in the Seattle area in the last couple of years, providing easy access to maps, schedules and real-time updates on when a bus will arrive at a particular stop.

For the blind, whose independence relies in part on access to mass transit, One Busy Away is a bust, since a blind person can t read a smartphone screen.

A University of Washington student developed One Bus Away. Now students and researchers at UW's Department of Computer Science and Engineering are building a transit app that talks to the blind, telling them where a stop is located and what they can expect to find when they get there.

Finding the right stop is often difficult as different buses stop at alternating locations, said David Egan, who is blind. Also knowing the bus numbers at any given stop is often impossible if no other riders are waiting at the stop.

If a sighted person asked how to get from downtown Seattle to Federal Way, she could be told there is a bus stop for Route 177 at 2nd Avenue and Union Street. Her eyes would guide her to right place.

A blind person could be told the same information, but he wouldn't be able to rely on key visual clues, such as:

  • Is the stop on 2nd Avenue or Union Street?
  • Is it north, south, east or west of the intersection?
  • Is the path to the stop gravel, concrete or brick?
  • Is there a shelter, bench or garbage cans there?

The new app under development at UW relies on information gathered through crowdsourcing.

Crowdsourcing is basically like Wikipedia where different people from different groups are providing information ... for each other, said Sanjana Prasain, a UW computer science and undergraduate research assistant helping develop the as yet unnamed app.

When the user moves a finger over the touch screen, the app speaks, reading the information the user is touching. Another tap, and the app shifts to the next screen, where there is more information.

The app will be integrated with One Bus Away, so a sighted person can provide descriptions of bus stops that will be converted to sound tracks for the blind.

This app is going to be a huge asset for independent travel, said Egan, who tried the app during the initial testing phase. It's quick, mainstream, user friendly and, above all, totally accessible. Because of crowdsourcing, the information is current, reflecting any changes to the surroundings with respect to any particular stop location.

The app could debut for the iPhone by the end of this year or early 2012.

It s almost ready for people to use, but we just want to make sure we have the basic platform where we know what information would be most useful to them, said Prasain.

The UW team is also experimenting with an Android app for deaf-blind people that would tether with Braille Sense, a laptop for the blind that prints braille documents.

The new apps could give more independence to blind people, who usually have to plan travel far earlier than sighted people.

Once they get to a bus stop, they have to ask people around them to make sure they are at the right stop or not, or the bus driver, said Prasain, adding that a bus driver may forget to tell a blind passenger when they have arrived at particular stop.

Egan said 99 percent of the time, fellow bus riders are very helpful.

But it only takes one negative experience to make a mess of one s plans to ask questions, he said.

The research is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Mary Gates Research Scholarship.

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