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A new app asks crowds to help map bus stops for the sightless

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Now that the novelty has worn off, you're probably not catching as many Pokemon as you used to. Never mind; perhaps you can use your smartphone to search for something else, and improve the lives of others, too.

Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown has developed Blindways, a new free iPhone app to help blind people find the nearest bus stop. Perhaps you didn't realize this was a problem. Neither did Perkins director of products Luiza Aguiar, until a blind colleague brought it up.

"It was such a simple problem that hadn't been addressed with today's technology that I just couldn't help chewing on it," Aguiar said.

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Perkins worked with Boston software developer Raizlabs to build the app; Google Inc. funded their efforts with a $750,000 grant. But even in the age of GPS, they need a little extra help from people who can see. And providing that help could be almost as entertaining as the quest for Pikachu.

The GPS units in cars and phones are only accurate to about 30 feet. For the sighted traveler that's good enough. But with better equipment, GPS can pinpoint your location to a couple of inches. Samsung Corp. is working with a Texas startup, Radiosense, to someday deliver superaccurate cellphone GPS, but it'll take awhile, and for most users it's not essential.

But "micronavigation," as Aguiar calls it, is exactly what blind bus riders need. They don't want to get within 30 feet of the bus stop, only to hear Number 16 cruise by without halting. They need to hit the spot. That's where Blindways' crowdsourcing feature comes in.

Crowdsourcing, of course, is what happens when we post restaurant reviews on Yelp, or correct the turn-by-turn instructions delivered by Google Maps. With Blindways, Perkins wants to recruit crowds of sighted Bostonians to precisely map the area around every bus stop in town.

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I did three of them myself. I just launched the app, stood directly under each bus stop sign and let the iPhone's GPS get a good hard location fix. Next, I completed a simple on-screen questionnaire describing nearby objects. What's to the left or right of the bus stop? Grass? A lamppost? A driveway? A parking meter? Any other terrain features worth noting?

A blind traveler can see none of these things. But with a cane, he'll tap them as he gets close to the stop. And the phone will tell him what to expect, reading the stored landmarks audibly as the traveler touches the screen.

Blindways isn't the first attempt to offer crowdsourced help to disabled people. Jason DaSilva, a New Yorker with multiple sclerosis, created AXS Map, a service that encourages people to visit local businesses and record whether their entrances and bathrooms are accessible to people in wheelchairs. And from Denmark, there is Be My Eyes, an app that blind people can use to get long-distance help from a sighted person. For instance, a blind user can point the smartphone's camera at a shirt and slacks, then ask a sighted volunteer if the colors match. As of last year, about 24,000 blind people were using Be My Eyes, and 300,000 sighted people have signed up as volunteer helpers.

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But I think Blindways is especially suited to the sort of person who spent the summer searching the streets of Greater Boston for animated monsters. Hundreds of local bus stops remain unmapped. And what about America's other cities? Aguiar said that Blindways will be gradually rolled out across the country. Eventually it could make life easier for blind people worldwide, if enough of us volunteer to help.

And finding volunteers would be easy if they made a game of it. Perhaps Perkins could field a version of Blindways that offered gift cards or other rewards to mappers. Better yet, let's have a special edition of Pokemon Go, where players could earn experience points or level-ups when they map bus stops for the blind. Raizlabs founder Gregory Raiz said he's open to the idea, but I haven't heard back from Niantic Inc., the makers of Pokemon Go. No doubt they're busy managing their megahit game.

Still, daily usage of the game, which peaked at around 45 million in July, had fallen to around 30 million about a month later, according to the Boston app-tracking company Apptopia. Play will no doubt continue to wane as winter sets in. Frigid commuters will need a very good reason to dig out their phones. A chance to aid their sightless neighbors might be just the incentive they need.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.