Wayfindr was formed in 2015 in London with ambitions to help the world’s 285 million blind people navigate indoor environments independently. Wayfindr is an award-winning social tech non-profit. They want to empower vision impaired people to overcome isolation, through audio based navigation. They have created the world’s first internationally-approved standard for accessible audio navigation. Vision impaired people can now travel independently, through inclusive and accessible audio navigation. Wayfindr has piloted audio navigation systems all over the world, working with a wide range of venues and partners. The company has significant expertise in audio navigation, having run successful trials in London (in partnership with TfL), Australia, Norway, Spain, and Italy. Let’s have a look on what does for Wayfindr social innovation mean.
Intro question: What is the social innovation Wayfindr about?
Our social innovation is about empowering vision impaired people to travel independently using indoor audio navigation technology. At Wayfindr, we have developed the world’s first Accessibility Standard for audio navigation, approved by the International Telecommunication Union. This standard means that audio navigation apps can be designed to be usable for vision impaired people. Audio navigation allows vision impaired people to travel spontaneously and independently by giving them the information they need to navigate complex indoor environments, such as airports, train stations, and shopping centres. The standard is free to use for app developers, which we hope will lead to a wide range of accessible audio navigation apps that vision impaired people can use. Crucially, the standard also guarantees a consistent user experience for vision impaired people, which will give them the confidence to use audio navigation wherever it is available.
Why did you (or your partners) start this social innovation?
Wayfindr began as a partnership between the Royal Society for Blind Children, a charity based in the UK, and ustwo, a digital design studio. In late 2014, young vision impaired people in London identified not being able to use the London Underground independently as a major barrier to them living independent lives. They had come to use smartphone technology quite a bit in other areas of their lives and were keen to see if there was a way for them to use smartphones to be able to travel predictably, reliably, and independently on the Underground. So as part of their youth manifesto they issued a challenge: they wanted to find a way to be able to travel on the Underground independently, just using smartphone technology.
How did you come up with the idea? Was a creative or collaborative process involved?
The idea of audio navigation for vision impaired people has been the subject of theoretical research going back many years. When investigating possible solutions, we realised that technological advances had made it much easier and cheaper to deliver audio navigation guidance in an indoor setting. While we initially investigated a couple of options, we very quickly settled on the idea of audio navigation as the solution with the greatest potential. While the idea of audio navigation was established, we were sure to check with vision impaired people from the beginning that this was something that they thought would be useful for them in real life.
What were you afraid of at the beginning and how (if at all) did you overcome your fear?
Initially, Wayfindr started out as a concept idea and a small proof-of-concept test. This generated a lot of positive coverage and positive momentum, however it was not entirely clear how far we would be able to go. Once we secured a multi-year grant, we were able to plan our activities and ensure we could deliver something tangible that would benefit the market and benefit end users. This helped us to overcome fears as it was clear to everyone what we were trying to achieve, how much time we had to achieve it, and how our work was being funded.
What were the beginnings of the social innovation? (i.e. how did you build your initiative, business, NGO from zero?).
Having come across the idea of audio navigation, and validated it with our end users we designed a prototype mobile application and approached Transport for London (the body that runs the Underground) who facilitated a 4 week trial at one station. This established a successful proof of concept for an audio navigation app for the Underground and received very positive feedback from testers. At this stage, we realised that the greatest possible impact we could have would be to find a way to make all indoor navigation applications more accessible for vision impaired people instead of just making our own app for the London Underground. At this stage we pivoted to the idea of designing a standard for the user experience of an audio navigation app. For vision impaired people to use audio navigation, it is crucial that apps provide a consistent user experience as this reduces the cognitive burden of interpreting and using the information they provide. If audio navigation does not use such a standard, the numbers of vision impaired people using it will be low, as it will be too difficult and stressful to constantly figure out how different apps work.
How did you attract public attention to the issue you wanted to tackle and make others believe in your purpose and potential?
The mobility issues facing vision impaired people, in the UK and worldwide, are well established. Our innovation was to take a new, digital-first approach to tackling this long-term problem. This in itself raised some positive awareness of what we are doing. Beyond that, sharing the feedback of vision impaired people goes a long way towards making people believe in the purpose and potential of audio navigation. We have been and will continue to work with vision impairment organisations in the UK and beyond, so that vision impaired people come to know the potential of audio navigation technology and push for its adoption across the globe.
How did you make sure that your idea actually fits the needs of the users?
From the beginning, we worked on the principles of user-centred design. This means involving users in all aspects of design and testing, and taking an iterative approach to designing solutions. We began with a co-creation workshop with a group of vision impaired people, which gave us a list of assumptions. In our early trials, we tested these assumptions and either validated or rejected them. This gave us the fundamentals of the Open Standard, which we were then able to develop through further testing. When we carry out audio navigation trials, we make sure to include a wide range of potential users, in terms of age, type of vision impairment, familiarity with technology, and confidence in travelling etc. This means our solution is designed hand in hand with end users, ensuring that it is high quality and usable for them.
How did you raise the money for your idea and what is your advice for others considering DYI fundraising?
Wayfindr has been the beneficiary of a series of grants, including from Google.org and the Big Lottery Fund. We have also generated revenue from our audio navigation trials, and have also received a small amount of European funding. For others seeking funds, it is worth investigating EU funding opportunities and finding a consortium of partners who are active in similar areas. Many large corporations also run innovation labs which offer opportunities for funding, investment and knowledge transfer. There are also a wide range of competitions to enter which can lead to grants, investment, and advice.
How did you scale your social innovation and what tips for scaling could you share?
Our approach to scaling is to work with as much of the industry sector as we can, and to add value to their work. If indoor navigation app developers use our standard and provide audio navigation, their products become accessible to vision impaired people. The standard is free to use and saves developers time and research costs. This also means as many end users as possible will benefit from our innovation, by having a wide range of navigation apps which use the standard to choose from. When scaling up, it is important to understand what value your innovation adds to an existing or emerging market and the best ways to speak to the players active in that market.
How do you change the whole system?
It’s important to understand how the system works and who the key players are. It can be tempting to make a lot of noise and complain about how a system works, however true change will require a lot of work and buy in from a lot of actors. Understanding how the system works allows the opportunity to make incremental improvements, leading to larger changes over time.
What it the one advice you can give to an aspiring social innovator, a member of the Social Innovation Academy, with only two things at the moment: a big heart and a willingness to do something?
Start something, talk to people in your community and who are looking at the same problems as you and you will be amazed at how far you can go!
Interviewed by Maja Novak
Tiernan Kenny (www.wayfindr.net _ @WayfindrStd) is the Head of Communications, Public Affairs, and Standards at Wayfindr. In this role, Tiernan is responsible for raising awareness of audio navigation and the Wayfindr Open Standard as a cutting-edge accessibility solution. Before joining Wayfindr, Tiernan spent several years in Brussels working in public affairs, mainly on technology policy, including standards in the areas of cloud computing and cybersecurity. He has also worked on policy development for the UK’s largest business advocacy organisation.
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