Geospatial Tech & Universal Design: Creating Access for All

August 8, 2018

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Not everyone can climb stairs, nor can everyone read, or even hold, a map. Every one of us will have a disability at some time in our lives, whether temporary or permanent: think about being in a place where you don’t speak the language or having your arm in a cast. Yet nearly everyone can use a ramp to access a building, and if you have ever been to an exhibit where there is a tactile map, you’ll notice that almost everyone runs their hands over it.

Ramps and tactile maps are examples of universal design, the concept that all experiences, particularly in the built environment, should be accessible to as many people as possible. This applies not only to physical access to buildings and transportation but to independent navigation.

In this article, we’ll look at a sample of case studies that demonstrate how geospatial technology and universal design work together to make the world more accessible to everyone.

Korona, Japan

The Japanese have a culture of honoring their elderly population, many of whom have limited mobility. In 2007, the city of Korona conducted a mapping effort to identify accessible pedestrian routes. The project consisted of personal interviews, exhaustive mapping with paper maps and GPS, and conflation of existing digital GIS data. The result was a series of paper maps and web apps that led to more accessibility for all pedestrians.

London, England

The more access that people have to transportation, the more access they have to education and employment. The city of London, England is the hub of one of the largest economies on Earth, and like many global capitals, it is constantly responding to rapid and constant growth. Also like most global economic powers, London seeks to maximize its return on the investment spent on critical infrastructure.

Fortunately, London is also home to numerous academic institutions. In a very scientific manner, scientists used rich data and sophisticated social science and statistical methods to build models projecting London’s future growth and the accessibility of transportation for all citizens, regardless of mobility. Along with numerous maps and new geographic data, this team developed a GIS tool that will be deployable as scenarios and data evolve.

Universal design is scalable.

As these two cases illustrate, the combination of universal design and geospatial technology leads to empowerment for everyone, regardless of their ability. So far, we have seen projects in a medium-sized city and a global megalopolis, but it can also be implemented at a much more local scale. At Northern Arizona University, for example, multiple departments teamed up to make a map of accessible routes on campus. 

In the U.S., minimum legal standards for accessibility are defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act. It codifies how any new built environment must be constructed to accommodate as many people as possible, regardless of ability. This is a dense document with very specific information on measurements, down to the width of bathroom stalls.

The team at NAU parsed many of these specifications into an ArcGIS geodatabase, focusing specifically on transportation metrics such as navigable slope, locations of curb cuts, etc. This geodatabase was then deployed in the field on high-accuracy Trimble GPS units to identify routes, both accessible and not.

Although the actual mapping proved more challenging than expected for a one-semester student project, a proof of concept was developed that could lead to further efforts.

The Path Forward

These case studies all illustrate the benefits of universal design and the critical role that geospatial technology can play in its implementation. However, they all reveal challenges, which of course… are opportunities!

Accessibility is more than physical mobility.

We live in a mobile world, in which transportation is an essential element of a productive, fulfilling life.

This article has focused primarily on using geospatial technology to help empower people with mobility impairments in the built environment. However, geospatial technology can help empower other people in other environments, including those with visual limitations.

I mentioned tactile maps as examples of universal design, a 3-dimensional sculpture of a map. People can both touch it and see it. But, have you ever realized that when asking your phone for directions you are enjoying the benefits of universal design? It talks to you. Navigation doesn’t have to be purely visual. Section 508 of the ADA focuses on requirements for communication accessibility, including web-based maps.

Geospatial technology offers scalability.

The scale of these studies is at what I would call the “meso-scale,” ranging from a city of 6.5 million people to a campus of 700 acres. However, accessibility mapping can go both up and down the spatial scale. In the U.S., public land managers make visitor maps showing accessible sites over tens of thousands of acres, while shopping centers and universities make maps for individual buildings. At the global level, remote sensing and GIS are used to identify vulnerable populations and access to them, both with proprietary applications and open-source apps like Open Street Map.

The data is richer and more available than ever…but is the data better?

In the early 2000s, I led an online course in GIS for emergency management. One of the assignments was to make a map of vulnerable populations. The students had to pick a zip code and mine data to find day care centers and assisted living facilities. Some used the Yellow Pages, others the internet, most used both. Then they geo-coded the addresses and made least-cost-path maps based on coarse DEMs and available street data. More recently, a colleague of mine made least-cost-path maps of his campus. In a small urban area, he had access to lidar data and survey-level street maps, but still used GPS to map the curb cuts on crosswalks.

This same colleague now makes those public-lands maps I mentioned earlier. Since he covers hundreds of thousands of acres, and like me is in the office rather than the field, he can’t get to every single site that he maps. As it becomes easier to turn field data into GIS data, we need to be cautious about the sources of the data. Whether mapping fires or water lines or accessible routes, the final map product is only as good as the data that feeds it.

Geospatial technology is only one element of mapping accessibility.

In NAU’s pilot project, they discovered that even sub-meter GPS wasn’t accurate enough to identify the metrics that are required for ADA compliance. The ADA specifications, even for outdoor areas, are measured in inches. The mappers had to add smart-levels, tape measures and notebooks to their digital toolkit. In the Japan and London projects, stakeholder participation was a critical element. As anyone who has worked in social science knows, this is an expensive and labor-intensive effort.

What geospatial technology offers to accessibility, as it offers to every endeavor, is a common language on which to build more ideas, create discussions and offer potential solutions. A good map and/or a good dataset can provide a framework from which other parties — stakeholders, surveyors, planners, elected officials — can initiate discussions and ideally solve problems, or better yet, prevent problems before they happen.


When I first started this article, I thought it would be a simple linear flow. The more research I did, though, revealed how much potential is out there. The number of efforts to use geospatial technology to empower us is astounding. I have only touched on it here. Every one of us is touched by the mortal nature of our bodies and minds. Accessibility affects us all. So, to paraphrase Col. Chamberlain before the battle of Gettysburg: In the end, what we’re really mapping for, is one another.


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