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December 19, 2016 / carlispina

Google Maps’ New Accessibility Feature

Late last week Google Maps debuted a new feature that incorporates accessibility information into entries about individual business and locations. The feature, which was created by a group of Google employees during their 20% time, works by asking Google Maps users to weigh in about the accessibility of locations they visit and then adding this information to the entry for the location in Google Maps.

Screenshot of the Russell House's entry on Google Maps showing accessibility info.

This is a nice feature that is sure to be useful to many people, particularly given the popularity of Google Maps, but I want to discuss some current limitations of the feature. First, and perhaps most notably, the feature does not appear to be included in the desktop version of Google Maps. While this may seem like a minor issue, it does mean that accessibility information is only available to those who have access to a mobile device and is not as easily available for those who are using a desktop to plan in advance of visiting a location.

In addition, all of the content is generated by “Local Guides,” who are Google Maps users who are willing to add information on accessibility to the entries for places that they visit. Though crowdsourcing this information from Google Maps users allows Google to quickly aggregate content for the feature, this means that this information is based on varying levels of understanding of accessibility and is not necessarily detailed or based on legal standards. For example, the entries I have seen focus on whether the entrance is accessible, but it’s not clear what this means: does it take into account door width and the steepness of any available ramp? These entries also don’t mention other aspects of accessibility, such as accessible bathrooms or features for individuals with other types of disabilities.

Finally, finding accessibility information requires users to go to the full “About” page for the location. Once there, the information is listed under “Amenities.” This isn’t ideal for a couple of reasons. First, accessibility information seems to be listed only if it is available. If there is no accessibility information for a location, there doesn’t seem to be a way to tell if that is because the location isn’t accessible or simply because no information has been added yet. As noted in my Twitter conversation with Frank Skornia and Kate Deibel (see below), it seems that what is missing is a way to flag places that aren’t accessible.

Also, because this information isn’t on the main page, many users may never find it, even if they are looking for it. One additional note: listing accessibility as an ‘amenity’ seems like an odd choice that frames accessibility features as a bonus even though in reality they are often a legal requirement. Both of these final items might be addressed by making accessibility a separate category, preferably more prominently placed.

Overall, I’m glad that Google decided to add this feature to Google Maps, but I hope they continue to expand and refine it to make it more useful and reliable. (Special thanks to Frank Skornia and Kate Deibel for discussing this with me on Twitter.)

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