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Rolling along

September 12, 2011

A German site, WheelMap.org, has mapped 73,000 wheelchair-accessible locations in just one year. The site relies on a vast network of volunteers who take advantage of 'open data.'

Raul Krauthausen
Raul Krauthausen is the founder of WheelMap.orgImage: Lux Fotostudio Berlin

Every day, countless people use Google Maps or other online mapping services to figure out how to walk or drive from one place to another. But for the 185 million people in wheelchairs around the globe, stairs and other uneven surfaces are constant obstacles in their daily lives.

One year ago this month, 31-year-old social entrepreneur Raul Krauthausen launched an online tool that maps wheelchair-accessible locations in different cities around the globe. He's one of 1.6 million wheelchair users in Germany.

Over the past year, 2,000 contributors have mapped over 73,000 places - mostly in Europe - including bars, cafes, government offices, and train stations on WheelMap.org.

"Two years ago a friend of mine was sitting with me in a café and told me that he hates this café where we meet every day and he wants to go to another place," Krauthausen explained.

"But as a wheelchair drive …you always have the problem that you don't know which café is wheelchair accessible."

WheelMap receives about 100 new contributions every dayImage: Lux Fotostudio Berlin

Open data

The site makes use of "open data," information that is stored in a particular file format so that it's easy for programmers to create new visualizations or variations on it.

Developers point out that commercial online mapping tools like Google Street View often don't take into consideration how wheelchair users use public transportation. But, with open data tools like OpenStreetMap, they can create the online tools that cities or companies have neglected.

"You can see that for example (this one) area in Berlin, it can only be reached in 66 minutes by a person in a wheelchair," noted Stefan Wehrmeyer, an IT engineer student in Berlin, as he pulled up a transit map on his laptop. "But it's about 27 minutes by public transport if you do not depend on accessible stops."

In recent years, there has been a greater movement pushing cities like London, Manchester, Madrid and Turin to make their transit scheduling available as open data. Wehrmeyer had to collect this information on Berlin by hand.

"In addition to timetables, public transport companies should also provide real-time updates as to where the elevators or escalators have recently broken down - because people with disabilities depend on these services," he added.

Man with wheelchair on train
Only certain trains and stations in Germany are fully wheelchair-accessibleImage: AP

Color-coded convenience

Krauthausen has developed into the site which now draws around 100 new entries every day. The site is dependent on wheelchair users who contribute their own knowledge of places under four color-coded categories.

"Accessible places, so where I can enter a place and if available I can use a toilet as a wheelchair driver are marked green," Krauthausen says.

"Places which are only partly accessible, for example a café without a wheelchair toilet is marked yellow, which means you can only enter the place. And red are marked places where you can't enter as a wheelchair driver because of steps in front of the entry."

Wheelmap has become almost indispensible for many of its users, especially in older European cities like Berlin that are not always designed to accommodate them.

"Most challenges are when I have to use trams and trains and buses because not all the lines are accessible," said Ingo Stöcker, Berlin-based web developer who also uses a wheelchair.

"You have to take every second bus or every second tram which is accessible. You have to plan your day when you go by bus or train."

Author: Cinnamon Nippard, Berlin / cjf
Editor: Nathan Witkop