Beacons boost city access for people with low vision

New beacons along Bourke and Swanston streets will send audio messages about potential obstacles to users’ phones, to help people with low vision or blindness get around the city.

Chair of the People City portfolio, Councillor Beverley Pinder, said the City of Melbourne had commissioned Guide Dogs Victoria to develop a program, which uses a phone app to provide information about intersections, construction and public transport.

“Accessibility is an important part of everything we do at the City of Melbourne, including helping people find their way around our city,” Cr Pinder said.

“Melbourne is growing – and as our city changes it’s vital that we support people living with low vision, blindness or other disabilities to remain confident and independent getting around.

“We’re embracing new ways of communicating with residents and visitors to ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to experience everything our wonderful city has to offer.”

The beacons use an existing phone app, BlindSquare, to provide detailed audio messages with information that is not available through other map based tools such as Google Maps. This includes the location of obstacles, such as bollards, and information about construction works in the area.

New virtual GPS beacons have been created at intersections along Bourke and Swanston streets and sections of Flinders Lane and Degraves Street. The technology also uses new physical beacons, installed in prominent locations including Ross House, Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne Visitor Hub at Town Hall, City Library and the Degraves Street underpass.

The technology uses GPS and bluetooth in the user’s phone to access audio messages from nearby beacons. It is designed to be used as an additional tool to complement other mobility aids such as a cane or Guide Dog.

The beacons work with either the paid version of Blindsquare or the free Blindsquare Event phone apps, which are commonly used by people with low vision or blindness to access information about key locations.

The beacon technology has been successfully implemented by Guide Dogs Victoria at all City Loop train stations, Richmond and Footscray railway stations, Melbourne Zoo, District Docklands Shopping Centre, and the recent Grand Prix.

Chair of the International Engagement portfolio, Councillor Philip Le Liu, said messages were available in 25 different languages.

“This is a fantastic tool that will provide invaluable support to people with low vision, whether they are residents who speak a language other than English, or among the almost 3 million international tourists who visit Melbourne each year,” Cr Le Liu said.

The City of Melbourne completed user testing in August this year. People with low vision or blindness provided advice to improve the messages people receive and ensure the information is helpful and relevant.

Further feedback can be provided through the app and will be closely monitored and used to adjust the messaging as needed.

Guide Dogs Victoria CEO Karen Hayes said: “Everyone deserves to enjoy our beautiful city, so it’s important that we continue to work as a community to make public spaces, events and experiences more accessible than ever.

“We commend City of Melbourne for their collaboration in further bringing this exciting technology to life across the city, and we look forward to seeing more organisations do the same.”

Blindsquare and Blindsquare Event are available for iPhone through Apple’s App Store.

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