Did you know that of the people who are only able to move their eyes, 50% are not able to blink voluntarily?
How can those people use Google Maps to plan a trip? They have the same aspirations as the rest of us – to get out, see things, plan and communicate; they just face an additional set of restrictions on how they interact.
This is the problem that team Zopa set out to solve at the first-ever Hacker Games. Here’s what happened:
About the Hacker Games
In January, a team of Zopians attended the inaugural Hacker Games, a two-day hackathon held in London on behalf of Special Effect, a charity dedicated to improving the lives of people with disabilities by making technology accessible to them.
Nine companies from across the UK competed to be crowned the first-ever winners of the Hacker Games. We all knew that it would be hard work and the competition would be fierce, but it turned out that winning would be the least important thing to be gained from these two days.
Meet the Zopa team
Our team consisted of five people: Slavo (developer), Jon (developer), Tom (developer), Marc (project manager), Natalia (designer). Although we’re all Zopians, the five of us had never worked in the same team, and some of us had never even met before (Zopa is growing rapidly, and we’re hiring).
We arrived at New Zealand house at 8am on a freezing Thursday morning, clad in Zopa team hoodies and ready to meet the competition.
After a quick breakfast, our challenge was revealed: we would be given two days to build something that could enrich the lives of those living with some form of disability, culminating in a three-minute pitch in which we would present our product and the reasoning behind it. Beyond that, there were no specific restrictions on the type of problem we should aim to solve.
To help get the ideas flowing, we were shown videos of individuals who have been helped by Special Effect. Around the room everyone started to sit up and concentrate a little more. We started to realise that this was no ordinary hackathon; we had an opportunity to try and make a difference in people’s lives.
We mooted several different ideas at first, from an accessible emoji-keyboard chrome-extension to a TaskRabbit-like service for the disabled, though none seemed like they would be life-changing.
So we started looking at the hardware that was provided. After a demo of the eye-tracking hardware, we realised that whilst the technology was wonderful, it was extremely difficult to use with a lot of websites we took for granted. Specifically, navigating using Google Maps, a task we all took for granted, was entirely impossible. We had never considered before how hard it was for people with disabilities to interact with the world around them, or the disillusionment they must feel when they hear about things they cannot access.
From that point on, adding accessibility and inclusivity to Google Maps really excited us, and we decided to tackle the problem for those with the most extreme disability that we could help.
We wanted to help these people to visit a map online and view places that are wheelchair accessible, like a restaurant or a tourist spot.
With our idea nailed down, it was time to set to work.
We tried to solve high-level two problems: navigation and discovery.
So how do you create a Google Maps interface for people who can’t blink?
We boiled the answer down to ‘big buttons’ and ‘intents’. Google Maps is navigated using dragging, and scrolling / pressing of buttons. Eye-tracking hardware is useful, but it is not entirely accurate, and if the user can’t blink or supply additional input, clicking is out of the question. It is therefore not possible to interact with the map via regular controls. We solved the clicking problem using timers – hovering over a target sets off a one-second delay before its action is invoked, which repeats every 0.5 seconds until it loses focus.
Discovery is also a major issue for these users as you cannot type if you are unable to blink. To this end, we integrated with the wheelpmap.org API, which supplies categorised, crowd-funded data about accessible locations around Europe. We created a simple UI to allow users to populate the map of their current location with places they may wish to see and that are accessible.
By the end of day one we had managed to get the basic functionality up and running, but by 8pm we were all a little fried so decided to call it a day.
We had until 3pm to continue coding and prepare the presentation.
While the three developers and Natalia were busy designing and building the application, Marc was hard at work finding as many relevant facts about this particular disability to build a user story around our product.
The final push
With only a couple of hours left it was all hands on deck!
We had utilised our time well, but even so we were still making last-minute changes to design and functionality. We gathered together with an hour remaining to bring all the parts together and practise the pitch.
We were the fourth team to pitch to the panel of judges.
The pitch went brilliantly and we really thought we were in contention for the win. Jon demonstrated on the big screen the eye tracking software that allowed people to navigate the site without the use of their hands. Marc explained the reasoning behind the product and the market size, and Slavo answered the questions from the judges.
After watching all nine pitches, the judges had some time to deliberate on the winner. All the teams had managed to build a full product to the absolute highest standards.
Unfortunately the result did not go our way, with team Asos taking the win with a brilliant piece of kit that used facial recognition to allow people who suffer from anxiety to check who is at the door.
The real win
Although we were all gutted not to have won the first-ever Hacker Games, it was an eye-opening experience for everyone. Beyond coding a cool idea, we actually came away with our eyes opened a little wider to the realities of the world some people live and the fantastic work of charities such as Special Effect.
The Hacker Games managed to raise over £5,000 for Special Effect, thanks to the generous donations from all the companies involved.
Thank you Hacker Games for inviting us to this special event and we look forward to our invite next year!!