Analysis: access all areas

Planning for major public events has to take into account the fact that one size hardly ever fits all. E&T looks at some of the latest developments in widening accessibility.

There is no such thing as a standard person. Take the thousands of visitors to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Some 1.2 million volunteers were on hand to assist them. The London games in 2012 will be a different story, with a mere 70,000 pairs of helping hands, so technology will have to play a much bigger role in making sure that everyone can travel to and around the venues with the minimum of fuss.

That will not be a trivial task. At peak times up to a quarter of a million people an hour will be entering the Olympic Park - people of all ages, with widely varying physical and cognitive capabilities, many of whom will not speak English. Designing facilities around some kind of statistically average model is simply not an option.

The Olympic Delivery Authority recently declared that the Olympic Park, venues and infrastructure for the London 2012 Games will be the most inclusive and accessible to date. Its Inclusive Design Strategy sets out the framework for how the Olympic Park will be constructed for people of all cultures, faiths and ages, and accessible to people with disabilities.

There will be wide pathways with smooth surfaces and gentle gradients, and seating and resting places at regular intervals. Provision of wheelchair spaces and amenity seating will set a new UK benchmark, and signage is to be clear and easily understood.

Specifiers and designers will need to ensure too that information and communications technology works for all users. Recently the IET and PhoneAbility, which acts as a focal point for work on telecommunications and disability, held a joint seminar in London to consider how to design accessibility into technological systems for major sporting events like the Olympics.

While the agenda ranged across issues from security to watching TV on mobile phones, a key theme was transport and mobility. PhoneAbility chairman John Gill broke the basic requirements for travel into six stages: gathering information, planning the journey, buying a ticket, making the journey (and coping with any service disruption), finding the venue and getting around within the venue.

Information is vital at every stage of that process. Professor Mike McDonald of the University of Southampton pointed out that the key issues in a travel context are the quality of the underlying information and the way it is delivered. At present, he said, "poor information is due to lack of knowledge, not problems with delivery."

Information delivery has made rapid advances in recent years. The Internet is increasingly used in the preparation stages of a journey, while electronic displays, or variable message signs (VMS), are becoming commonplace on the highways and at bus stops and railway stations. Drivers can turn to in-vehicle systems as a navigation aid, and passengers on public transport can use the in-vehicle displays for reassurance that they have boarded the right service and to alert them when their destination is near.

On trains, the visual signs are coupled with audio messages, but this is not usually the case on buses or at bus stops, where trials have sometimes prompted local complaints about noise. However, Brighton and Hove Council launched a trial last year of a service whereby blind and partially-sighted people could use a keyfob device to trigger spoken information only when it was needed. Future work could see the information delivered to a mobile phone with no need for a separate device.

Mobile phones already have the possibility of interacting with smart cards in real time, says Geoff Doggett, chair of the Smart Card Networking Forum, but he warned delegates at the seminar that the underlying Near Field Communications technology will not be widely implemented in time for the Olympics. "Mobiles are fashion items," he said, with strong competition between manufacturers. "A standard won't have emerged by 2012."

Providing information tailored to individual needs opens up a whole area that could be summed up as 'customer interfaces', both physical and digital. Sometimes simple things make a huge difference - like providing somewhere beside a cash machine to prop a walking stick, or making sure that ticket machines aren't sited facing into bright sunlight that will make the screens unreadable.

Smart cards offer a way to ensure that information and services can be provided at self-service terminals in the ways that people need - for example, specifying the user's preferred language, setting a high-contrast display with large characters, delivering audio output or alerting a supervisor that someone may need assistance.

However, a go-anywhere card of this type would have to be universally readable. Several speakers and delegates referred to the SNAPI project, which aims to promote a standard way of coding user requirements on smart media. The coding system has already been incorporated in the ITSO specification for smart card transport ticketing in the UK. The standard is also recommended for all new cards issued by national and local government agencies.

The need for standards was a recurring theme throughout the seminar, but the Earl of Errol, secretary of the All-Parliamentary Group on Communications, issued a warning. "We need common sense," he said. "We should beware of single-issue campaign groups, who can conflict with other users. This isn't about winning and losing; it's about enabling."

John Gill of PhoneAbility perhaps summed it up best: "Good design for people with disabilities is good design for everyone." 

Further information

www.tiresias.org/phoneability [new window]

www.tiresias.org/snapi [new window]

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