An announcement late last week involving builder and developer The Daniels Corporation and accessibility technology company AccessNow represents a major step forward in determining how smart city advances can help people with disabilities live comfortably and prosper.
AccessNow, a mobile app that “provides a pan-disability lens on the accessibility of physical spaces around the world,” has teamed up with Daniels to map, review and rank the accessibility of businesses and public spaces in Toronto’s Regent Park, Canada’s largest social housing community.
Daniels and Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) are currently redeveloping a 69-acre site that includes not only new housing forms, but the recently completed World Urban Pavilion at 660 Dundas St. E.
A multi-year partnership between the Urban Economy Forum (UEF), UN-Habitat, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) and Daniels, the Pavilion was “designed as a knowledge exchange hub where stakeholders from around the world can come together to share learnings and best practices on sustainable urban development.” according to the press release.
Jake Cohen, Daniels chief operating officer, said that “among the social development goals set out by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs is making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. This pavilion where we are right now is a step towards achieving those goals.
“For all of us at Daniels, smart is more than just a buzzword. It’s more than referring to technological advancements when it comes to home building or home automation. Smart also means intelligent and perceptive practices that address the needs of what really makes communities thrive – people.”
The key to making that happen is AccessNow, developed in 2015 by Maayan Ziv, its founder and CEO, who was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), a form of Muscular Dystrophy.
It came out in time for the ParaPan Am Games held in Toronto, and then, as now, focused on how accessible buildings were. What began as a Web site that contained content based on crowdsourced reviews and people sharing information has morphed into something far greater.
That said, the human factor is critical. For example, in late May, the AccessNow team, Daniels and local Regent Park residents, participated in an event called MapMission that explored the “accessibility of places in the neighborhood”.
“A total of 500 accessibility features were observed throughout the community, including automatic doors, accessible parking spots and elevators, digital menus, braille, lowered counters, and gender-neutral washrooms, among other things,” a release outlining the partnership stated.
“The partnership aims to map, review, and rank the accessibility of businesses and public spaces in Regent Park. Results from the reviewing and mapping processes will highlight both the successes and barriers that currently exist for people living with disabilities in how they live, work, and play within the community.”
But now, instead of what Ziv described as a “low-tech approach” that was used seven years ago, AccessNow is “building a connected ecosystem – empowering people with disabilities globally by connecting consumers, companies, governments, engineers, and entrepreneurs with our intelligent, anonymized data resource.”
The company says that its “patent pending technology uses AI and machine learning to understand and predict how accessible the world really is based on a variety of sensor data.
“We work closely with our community to train our models to accurately learn from the lived experience of people with disabilities in order to develop ethical and inclusive AI.”
Ziv, meanwhile, says the “accessibility insights we map and highlight on the AccessNow app are the collective voices of the disability community that will inspire the future of inclusive smart city building.”
People sharing information “remains the heart and soul of what we do, but we can also now leverage that information – that data – to actually train our AI models to start to understand the world from the perspective of people with disabilities. We have image models; we have sensor data models; and we are training them to be able to start to look at spaces without the need of people to be there every single time.”
The company, says Dr. Moshe Levin, its chief technology officer, “is at the incredible cross-section between cutting edge technology and social impact. We are at the frontier of computer vision, sound analysis, kinematic signal processing and textual comprehension all in order to provide real value and insight for our community.”