Push the walk signal at the corner of Seventh Avenue and West 23rd Street in Manhattan, and a robotic voice will tell you to wait and then emit a series of rapid-fire clicks when the light turns green. For someone who’s blind, it’s a crucial tool for navigating. But out of New York City’s more than 12,000 intersections, fewer than 100 have audible signals. The same thing is true in most cities: Only about 10% of corners have new technology.
A new app called SeeLight makes ordinary walk signals accessible for everyone. If you’re blind, the app can tell you how many seconds you have left to cross, and point you in the right direction if you start to veer out of the crosswalk.
Cities can add data from each traffic light directly into the app, so it automatically knows when a particular light is green or red. But if government is slow to act, everyone else who lives in a city can help the app crowdsource details as they wait to cross the street.
“Public bodies can be notoriously slow at being proactive and temporary traffic lights are forever popping up when roads are being worked on,” says Vlad Sitnikov, creative director of Hungry Boys, the Moscow-based team that that developed the app. “SeeLight helps manage this uncertainty.”
As someone stands at a street corner, they can push a start and stop button to time the length of the walk signal, or point their smartphone at the traffic light to help create an augmented reality feature for people with limited vision. The app also asks questions like whether an intersection has raised, tactile bumps to help someone cross. It automatically adds a GPS tag for each light as the data is crowdsourced.
While switching to new audible signals might be ideal, it’s expensive and slow, and this is something that can be used now. “When government budgets for civil engineering projects are low to begin with, the last thing on their mind is making them more accessible to such a small minority of the population,” says Sitnikov. “It’s not just a case of retrofitting. Town planners weren’t thinking about how physically and emotionally aggressive cities can be to people with this particular disability, in the early days of development. With understanding, we hope to change that and in the meantime, provide a viable and easily accessible solution to this problem.”
The developers are raising funds on Indiegogo to keep improving and supporting the app. They’re hoping that everyone can start using the app, mapping out their own local walks to make their neighborhoods more accessible.
“We’ve already received lots of positive feedback from people, but we need more lights to be mapped,” Sitnikov says. “That is our only problem, and one that can be improved upon on a daily basis. Each day, every day we want our map to grow and grow.”