In France, app opens doors for disabled city dwellers

PARIS -- Microsoft-sponsored competition spurs French students to develop a new mobile app to ease city navigation for people with physical disabilities.
Written by Bryan Pirolli, Correspondent (Paris)

PARIS – A team of innovative French students has created new technology to make life easier for urbanites with disabilities.  Their project, called CapStreet won two gold medals at France’s Imagine Cup, a contest sponsored by Microsoft that pits students against each other to design new innovative services.  Their product consists of a website and application designed to map out entirely accessible routes for people with disabilities.

Some 12 million French are considered disabled, including limitations brought on by old age or illness.  Major cities, including Paris, are ill-equipped to address the needs of those facing mobility issues.  Many metro stations in the capital, for example, lack elevators that force those in wheelchairs into other forms of transportation that are not always easy to find.  CapStreet could be a solution to help disabled travelers find their way through any city.

Agathe Demnard, Anthony Balitrand, Arnaud Pouppeville and Franck Boisgibault, all in their twenties, have been working for just under a year together on the project.  The inspiration came when a disabled friend visiting Paris faced difficulty using the subway and other forms of public transportation.  Balitrand told SmartPlanet that this was the moment when he and his friends decided that they could fix this problem.

Starting in August 2011, the team began designing software and creating challenging new algorithms that became CapStreet.   The idea is that those facing mobility issues can plan their entire trip from beginning to end using the program.  By mapping out accessible sidewalks, public transportation, and buildings like restaurants, CapStreet breaks down barriers preventing many disabled people from leaving their home.

Balitrand said that the idea is to open up the technology to anyone while on the go.  CapStreet will suggest differing routes for those in wheelchairs, on crutches, even with strollers,  all according to the profile that the user creates. “We make the difference between accessibility of different routes according to the different disability,” he said.

In addition to the unique personalized mapping aspect of CapStreet, the application is interactive, allowing community members to help update it via open data sources.  People taking a certain route can comment and update the information for the route via their smartphones.  “Users, when they come to a place, they can say yes its accessible or no and say why,” he said.

Having won a gold medal for software design and a second for open data applications, the team will represent France at the international final of the Imagine Cup held in Sydney this year, marking the tenth edition of the competition.  The contest challenged students to design innovations that would respond a need inspired by, but not limited to the UN Millennium Development Goals.  If the team wins in Sydney, Microsoft could award them a generous grant and support to develop CapStreet further for the market.

Whether or not they win, Balitrand said that the future of CapStreet is already shaping up.  Several potential investors have expressed interest in the project after winning prizes at another competition, Startup Weekend, in Toulouse.  The website and mobile application are also being developed in New York and London.  What’s more, the team will be meeting with Paris’s transport minister soon to talk about testing the application in several major cities.  “Why not work directly with the ministers and launch directly in the cities?” Balitrand said.

Currently designed for Windows phones and the upcoming Windows 8 tablet, CapStreet should eventually be available on a variety of systems.  Balitrand said that it's only a matter of time before there will be a version for the iPhone, for example.  The ultimate goal is to create readily available technology that will provide equal accessibility to persons with disabilities across the globe.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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