In their built-in mapping apps (Google Maps and Apple Maps), both Google and Apple provide mapping data collected and assembled from a wide number of sources—from satellite imaging to special vehicles that travel the highways and byways collecting vast repositories of mapping data. They also use the locations of cell towers and Wi-Fi hotspots to help triangulate position even more precisely than stand-alone GPS navigation devices. The databases accessed by these apps don’t just include street names and locations, but they also include millions of points of interest (POIs.) This makes it possible to use either of these mapping systems to locate your town’s City Hall, the nearest gas station, a specific fast food restaurant, a hospital, or even the location of a specific street address. Best of all, these services are offered absolutely free of charge, and, as we will demonstrate, it is possible to use these maps accessibly using your smartphone’s built-in touchscreen reader.
Both Google Maps and Apple Maps store their data on company servers, so to use either to its fullest capabilities you will need an open wireless cell data connection. The amount of data that is transmitted between your device and company servers is usually not excessive, so most people can use smartphone navigation effectively with only a minimum data plan.
Apple Maps is only available on Apple devices. Google Maps is available on both Android and Apple iPhones, though to use Google Maps with an iPhone you will first need to download and install the Google Maps app from the iOS App Store
The feature sets found in both apps are quite similar. Often one or the other company will introduce an exciting new feature, but it is usually not long before that same capability becomes available on the other platform. Consequently, in this section we are going to group them together and describe the features that are of most interest to people with visual impairments who wish to answer the three most important mobility questions: “Where am I?” (current location), “Where am I going?” (destination), and “How do I get there?” (directions).
Sometimes, especially for those with visual impairments, the most critical navigational information is your current location. Even when you're using a guide dog or cane, it is possible to become disoriented. Mobility instructors can teach you a number of techniques to help reorient yourself. A mobile GPS device can also be quite useful when you need to determine your current location.
Both Apple Maps and Google Maps can pinpoint your position as near as 16 feet, depending on the number of satellites and other markers from which your smartphone can receive a signal. Currently the GPS satellite network is prohibited by the government from providing civilians with more precise location data. Poor weather conditions can also lead to what is known as satellite drift, which can also decrease your device’s ability to obtain sufficient data to pinpoint your precise location. Concrete walls and metal roofs can also block satellite signals, so GPS data obtained when indoors is usually not as accurate as that which is gathered outside.
Location data is calculated via triangulation, using information from as many satellites as possible. This data is quickly translated into more user friendly information, which is to say the nearest street name and address.
When you ask either app, “Where am I?” your smartphone will return your current location. Both map apps offer the ability to set a location as either a favorite or as your home address. As you will soon see, it is a good idea to make setting the location of your home address one of the first things you do with your new GPS mapping app.
Did you know that if you own a smartphone, you also have an accessible compass? Both Apple and Google Maps include a “compass mode,” which will help you become oriented to North, South, East, and West. Using compass mode is an excellent tool to help you stay on track when you are crossing a wide parking lot toward the street, or finding your way out of a large park or other public space.
Many third-party apps also offer additional functionality if they know where you are.
Yelp, a listing of user generated reviews, will display the eateries closest to you, with links to additional information, such as complete and accessible menus. The Grocery Pal app, which enables you to create a shopping list and check the specials at your favorite supermarkets, also uses location data to highlight grocery stores in your neighborhood. (You can read a detailed review of this app in the May 2013 issue of AccessWorld.)
Before these or any other apps can use your location data, you must first grant your permission. Most will request this permission the first time you start them. You can also turn these permissions on and off in your device’s Settings menu.
As a sight-impaired traveler, it’s not always easy to get the “lay of the land.” Even if you have lived in the same house or apartment for years, there may be churches, coffee shops, and other businesses within easy walking distance that you would frequent, if only you knew they were there. The same holds true for your place of employment. Do you order your lunch from the same few places because you don’t know a great new sandwich shop opened six months ago just around the corner?
Both Apple and Google Maps allow you to browse and search POIs. Choose the restaurant category and you will be shown a listing of all the local eateries, along with distances from your current location and usually other information, such as reviews and contact information. You can also search for a place by name, such as Starbucks or Home Depot, and find the one that’s closest to you.
When you need to get to an unfamiliar address, both Apple and Google Maps will show you how far away it is from your current location. If it’s far enough, you will likely wish to call a taxi. But if it’s only a few blocks, a pleasant walk may be in order.
Both Apple and Google Maps offer “turn by turn” directions. Enter a destination and press the “Get Directions” button and each will calculate the quickest route. You can scroll down a listing of streets you will need to travel, along with how far you must travel until you reach your next designated turn. Routes can be calculated for driving mode, cycling mode, walking or pedestrian mode, and public transportation mode. Sight impaired travelers will likely wish to use one of the last two.
As you travel, the map apps will announce each upcoming turn. “Turn right on Oak Street, for example, or “Turn right to destination on Main Street.”
When you reach your destination, you can add it to a Favorites list so its address, phone number, and travel directions will be available with one touch. You can also use an address a friend includes in his or her e-mail to quickly calculate a travel route, or use an address from your Contact List. To calculate a route you will need both the starting point and the destination. Entering this information is considerably easier if you have previously marked a destination as a favorite, and set your home location (as the majority of your trips will probably start from home).
Public Transportation Mode
As mentioned above, public transportation modes, including buses, subways, and commuter trains, are included in both map apps. Coverage is not complete, however, and the apps each take a different approach to how and what data they offer.
In Google Maps, when you enter a destination and select the Directions option, the app lists the approximate location of the nearest bus stop, and the arrival times of the next two buses that will get you to your destination. Transportation authorities must provide this data to
Google before it can be used, however, and not every community participates. Even if yours does not, you are not out of luck. Contact your local transportation authority and ask if they use their own mobile app to provide route and schedule information. You may actually prefer using one of these apps, as many offer extras not available on Google Maps, such as complete 24-hour schedules, transfer information, and audible alerts you can set to go off a few minutes before your bus actually arrives.
If you use Apple Maps and wish to plan a bus route, you will also need to determine which mobile app your local transportation authority uses. That’s because Apple does not currently include public transport information in their mapping platform. Instead, when you request a bus or subway route, Apple Maps displays a list of all bus, subway and commuter train route planning apps that are installed on your device. Activate any of these and Apple Maps will open the app and pre-enter your route information.
Drivers, cyclists, and sighted pedestrians will likely find that either of these mapping platforms fills nearly all of their navigation needs. They may also opt to install a few extra navigation apps, such as GasBuddy a mobile app that locates the nearest gas stations with pump prices. RunKeeper is another popular app that uses GPS and mapping data create a log map of how far you have jogged, run, or walked.
Many special interest consumers can benefit from GPS mapping and navigation apps that cater to their specific needs. Boaters will seek out apps that map bodies of water, with channel markers and other nautical information. Mountain bikers will look for apps with enhanced topographical data. Similarly, as sight-impaired individuals, our special interest consumer mapping and route-planning requirements diverge somewhat from the population at large. A number of developers have stepped up to help fill this need, and in the next section we will describe and discuss three blindness-aware GPS navigation apps.