As the March 2 nor’easter arrived, packing snow, rain, and 70-mph winds, 25 University of Pennsylvania students scattered across campus. Despite the storm, their mission — investigating the university’s accessibility in exacting detail — hadn’t changed.
Just past 3 p.m., their data started popping up on a new, online map created by Mark Bookman, a doctoral student in East Asian languages and civilizations, who uses an electric wheelchair due to a rare, glycogen-storage disease.
A trash can blocked a doorway in a student residence.
The performing arts center’s braille signs had been installed out of arm’s reach.
The hallways separating the stacks of the fine arts library were too narrow.
Bookman’s project is just one of the latest efforts to crowdsource accessibility, particularly wheelchair accessibility, that are popping up across the country.
WheelchairTravel.org gave Philadelphia an “excellent” for wheelchair-accessible tourism. Mapping projects such as AccessNow, which boasts more than 500 ratings for Philadelphia businesses, and Unlock Philly, which uses real-time SEPTA reports and Yelp data to document broken-down elevators and inaccessible restaurants, have shown more mixed results.
And later this month, the nonprofit Jewish Learning Venture will start rating Lower Merion businesses on the Access Earth mapping tool.
But so far these services have yet to join forces. As a result, some sites are barely mapped here.
In March, Google Maps announced it would offer wheelchair-accessible transit routes for some cities, but not Philadelphia, whose narrow passages were in place centuries before the Americans With Disabilities Act was signed in 1990.
To Bookman, crowdsourcing is attractive because users can measure accessibility on their own terms, as well as report obstructing barriers like construction in real time. His “intersectional” map also notes nearby accessible gender-neutral bathrooms, prayer spaces, and lactation rooms.
Later in March, at Bookman’s second “map-a-thon,” 40 students and staff members traversed campus again, this time through a rainstorm.
He was surprised that nine out of 10 volunteers “are people you would traditionally not think of needing access.” The process of mapping, he believes, can actually change people’s consciousness of the spaces they inhabit.
Back in the spring of 2016, when Wharton student Leah Davidson studied more than 500 Philadelphia storefronts, she noted where elevated doorways, bulky steps, and narrow entrances — architectural hindrances built into much of Philadelphia’s landscape — make merchants inaccessible to city residents who use wheelchairs.
While working for the Toronto-based accessibility map service AccessNow, Davidson rated small shops like Chestnut Jewelry and Image Hair Salon as “not accessible,” since patrons must climb at least one step to enter. Meanwhile, businesses like Almaz Cafe on 20th Street received a “partially accessible,” for having patio access but a “very narrow door.”
But few ratings have been added for Philadelphia since Davidson’s survey.
Businesses in buildings constructed before the ADA became law must remove architectural barriers if “readily achievable,” a mandate that can include installing an entrance ramp or widening a doorway.
“There are many businesses with one or just a few steps where a ramp could be built to provide access,” said Dynah Haubert, a staff attorney at Disability Rights Pennsylvania. “Public accommodations are often not aware of their obligations to do that.”
While Haubert sees promise in projects mapping wheelchair accessibility, she said they need a “critical mass on one of these things to make it really usable.”
Meanwhile, there are tourism blogs like WheelchairJimmy.com, which rated 88 Philadelphia hotels and restaurants for accessibility last year. John Morris, of Orlando, Fla., who runs WheelchairTravel.org, is returning to Philadelphia tourist spots in just a few weeks on behalf of Visit Philadelphia. In 2015, Morris gave the city a 20 based on a 25-point scale.
“These guides are designed to report on access for tourists,” he cautioned. “I am completely cognizant that sidewalks may be nonexistent, or horrible, in some of the residential neighborhoods. The bus stops may not be accessible.”
The creators of Unlock Philly are headed back to the drawing board. Today, their map, created in 2013, sees fewer than 10 users a day. The aging program that allowed the map to import accessibility data from Yelp reviews is also shutting down.
Ather Sharif, an engineer who advised the original Unlock Philly, is now working on improving the map to update its method of importing Yelp data and hopes to make the project more easily expandable to other cities.
He emphasized that with these kind of projects, it’s vital that data and code be shared whenever possible. Right now, coordination among those involved in accessibility applications “is terrible.”