Travel tech innovation

Here in this blog, Mark, Community Development Manager from our Digital Team talks through an exciting partnership with Transport for Greater Manchester on their Travel Assist project.

TfGM staff undertaking visual impairment awareness training on an escalator

This project is funded by Department of Transport as part of Accessibility Technology Research and Innovation Grant programme (A-TRIG) to develop and explore role technology can play in increasing accessibility.

Over the years, Henshaws have supported many organisations to make their products and services accessible for people living with sight loss. We have also supported these organisations to engage with the people we support. These companies have included Microsoft, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Barclays Bank and Cadent Gas.

This work is underpinned by three areas:

  1. To increase their organisation’s understanding of sight loss, so they can support our stakeholders better.
  2. To facilitate sessions with our stakeholders to ensure their product and/or service are needed.
  3. To facilitate sessions to ensure their products and/or services are usable and accessible.

I must confess, I’ve never been as excited when Transport for Greater Manchester got in touch some months back to ask if we could help them with their innovation project – the Travel Assist programme.

Innovation

The solution addresses so many difficulties people have traveling across Greater Manchester, via bus, train and tram. So, it’s an understatement to say I was keen to get involved, as were members from our well established TechTalk Groups. The opportunity to build confidence on public transport for the sight loss community hasn’t come at a better time. Particularly after COVID-19.

So, what is the project about then?
Travel Assist is a Web-App, a simple to use journey planner, which allows you to plot your route from your current location to your destination.
Most importantly, you can personalise your journey relating to your needs, like, if you are traveling with a guide dog, need stair free access, are carrying heavy luggage or even if you need a place to park your bike (that’s one is for you Peter R). At this stage, you might be thinking, “nothing new here Mark” … but please read on!

An element of the Travel Assist Web-App is something very exciting!

SightCall will allow the traveller to call TfGM’s Call Centre Support expert, using the ‘Assist Me’ button via the TravelAssist Web-App that can be used on range of phones and tablets. This can be used for ad-hoc support in a section of your journey. When you click on the Assist Me button, your request for support will go to their Call Centre. When they answer your call, they will be able to hear you, you will be able to hear them, and they will also have access to your smartphone camera in real-time. With clear audio and visual connectivity, the call centre staff will have a live account of support needs coupled with a live account of your environment.

Screenshot of the travel assist app from an Iphone, an example journey from Lancashire County Cricket Club to central Manchester
TfGM Travel Assist screenshot from desktop view. It samples a journey from Lancashire County Cricket Club to central Manchester

With your permission, they can activate the torch function on your phone, take a photograph, and even pinpoint your current location on Google Maps. It is the same technical principles of Be My Eyes and Aria but connecting to travel networks experts from Transport for Greater Manchester. With your permission, they can activate the torch function on your phone, take a photograph, and even pinpoint your current location on Google Maps.

It is the same technical principles of Be My Eyes and Aria but connecting to travel networks experts from Transport for Greater Manchester.

TfGM staff taking part in visual impairment awareness training at Piccadilly train station

How it happened...

It all started with an approach from TfGM. Sam and Sarah from the Innovation Team at TfGM got in touch with Henshaws, wondering if we could support them with the project and of course we were delighted to be asked. I contacted our TechTalk group initially, and as usual, they got back instantly, allowing us quickly to meet with You Smart Thing, Sightcall and TfGM.

The first meeting was a meet, greet, show and tell session. The aim was to introduce the Henshaws team to the aims, objectives and demonstrate the application to us all. This session went down very well, and we were able to give the TfGM some valuable feedback.

Here are some of the initial comments from the Henshaws Team:

Arthur says: I particularly like the potential to obtain assistance from specialist TfGM staff both at journey planning stage and in transit. Possibly guidance from Henshaws on additional information on particular challenges which may need to be overcome during the journey, e.g., guidance on transfers between platforms, platform numbering information and transfer between different transport mediums

Roz says: It would be lovely if the app could tell me when my bus/tram/train is approaching and let me know the stops en route. It would be really reassuring to know that in the event something goes wrong, there is someone to help, which would take some of the stress out of travelling.

Chris says: I agree with Ros and Arthur in that having a local travel expert, with local knowledge and insight regarding current disruptions, accidents, delays etc would be very beneficial.

Simon says: Being able to connect to someone through the application by voice is one thing, being able to connect them to your smart phone camera, and literally show them your surroundings is invaluable.

Our next blog update on this project will include:

  • TfGM staff training
  • Testing and bug feedback
  • Mock Scenarios
  • Live scenarios
  • Next Steps

If you want to be involved in this project, please email: mark.belcher@henshaws.org.uk

If you want to know more and be kept informed about this project and other Henshaws activities, why not register for our digital newsletter through our Knowledge Village

For information on travel accessibility around Greater Manchester visit the TfGM website

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charlotte.brown
Charlotte is the Marketing Manager for the Knowledge Village.