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SIX Interviews Jan Guardian on Ease of Access

Author: Jan Guardian
Published Date: 9 July 2013

“Ease of Access” – According to recent official statistics, there are 525,000 disabled people in Belarus, which equates to 5.4% of the population. Each year the government introduces new programmes and legislation aimed at improving the quality of life of disabled people and integrating them into society. Yet the way disabled people are treated in Belarus has remained unchanged since Soviet times. Jan Guardianfrom Belarus, a tutor in International Humanitarian Law, suggests a web-based multimedia platform which will help disabled people living in Belarus or visiting the country to find accessible services. Ease of Access is an open source platform which allows anyone both to take part in building the most accurate, up-to-date online maps with information on services (shops, pharmacies, entertainment venues, etc.) accessible for disabled people and to obtain information on such services all in one place. Ease of Access is free, with the conscious civil society being the driving force behind the creation of the platform database.

Ease of Access recently won recognition at the HuRiLab (Human Rights Lab) for developing technological solutions to human rights issues in Europe and the Middle East.

Could you describe Ease of Access for us? What does it feel like to sit down at your computer and start using it?

Ease of Access is a web-based accessibility map which can be used both on desktop and mobile devices. It is very similar to Google Maps or any other mapping service except for it provides trustworthy and comprehensive information on the accessibility of Points of Interest (POIs) for people with disabilities and a possibility of adding Points of Interest places and specifying their accessibility features for any registered user.

How long had you been working on the idea for Ease of Access before you applied for a place at the HuriLab? What inspired you?

When I was a young kid I visited Sweden and was impressed by a huge number of people with disabilities in the streets. When I came home and asked my mom why, she replied that there are as many in our country, however, due to extremely limited accessibility people with disabilities in Belarus could not enjoy their life and realize themselves to their full potential. That was the time I started thinking that something has to be done, yet I was too little to take action. A lot of time has passed since when recently I learned that the United Nations Development Programme and HuRiLab organize a competition on the implementation of social innovations which promote human rights and help solve burning societal issues. Memories of my visit to Sweden popped out and I immediately knew what I was going to do, whereas the project idea came to me in a flash. It took a while to develop it up to the point so that it could be submitted: the primary focus of the initial stage was to learn what the needs of people with disabilities are and how the project could be implemented technically.

How has working at HuriLab modified or developed your original idea?

The idea was redefined both substantially and technically at HuRiLab, where I united with my accomplices from around the Globe to make it real. Divergent opinions in concert with a mutual will to make a difference provided for a swift exchange of views and valuable ideas, thus, broadening our knowledge, enriching our understanding of the problem and making us think hard on how to make the platform both useful and usable. For example, given that the questions on accessibility features introduced within the ‘Add Place’ function were initially based on existing national and international governmental practices, they had to be simplified as to be easily understandable by anyone. Yet, detailed information on accessibility features still had to be provided as to allow people with disabilities estimate the accessibility of a place precisely based on their needs. This, in turn, led us to an idea to split the questions into two sets, simple and advanced, as to ensure the submission of basic information on the ease of access to a certain POI and an opportunity to specify additional detailed information for those having a possibility to do that. A sustainable project development strategy has also been drafted which will help Ease of Access stay alive and flourish in the many years to come as to help people with disabilities and make this world a better place.

How do you want Ease of Access to look at the end of this year? At the end of next year? Who will be using it? Where? What will the impact of their actions be?

Hopefully, by the end of this year the basic functionality of signing up, signing in, locating yourself, searching for places, adding them and reviewing information will be tuned up and tested. By that time a group of volunteers willing to contribute to the project will have started filling the database with information on the ease of access to POIs as to secure the successful launch of the platform. Wide media coverage in concert with the consciousness of our civil society will ensure further data inflow and will ultimately result in an automated, decentralized, adaptive and self-correcting database ready to be tested by people in need. Close collaboration with the Belarusian Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities will provide for a dissemination of information about the platform and an accurate feedback on its services which, in turn, will facilitate the introduction of changes to its functionality. The goal is to have Ease of Access fully working by the end of next year and to introduce new features, such as voice recognition and multilingual support so that the platform would respond to everyone’s needs and would broaden its geographic coverage beyond the territory of Belarus.

What do you need to get to where you want to be at the end of next year?

A lump sum of 6,000 USD will secure the technical finalization, tune up, testing and launch of the platform, whilst broad media coverage at the national level is necessary to ensure the smooth and constant inflow of data. Volunteer support is welcome at all stages especially given the amount of information that needs to be filled.