Photo: Saana Säilynoja

Published September 4, 2012

The blind leading the seeing – no problem!

A few months ago, tram passengers in Helsinki might have noticed something strange. A blind girl sitting on the tram with her white cane was able to identify exactly where the tram was at any point in time despite being visually impaired. She told her fellow passengers about the buildings, roads and squares they were passing, and even about locations behind the houses that the other passengers could not see.

“Do you know of any good cafés nearby?” asked her sighted friend as they got off.

“About fifty metres that way,” the girl replied, and started guiding her friend in the right direction.

Incredible? Maybe not. The blind girl was using a mobile phone application called BlindSquare, which, together with her phone and some headphones, provided her with the necessary information about her surroundings. The program had been invented by 42-year-old Helsinki resident Ilkka Pirttimaa a few months earlier, as part of his hobby.

Since then, the app has spread like wildfire among visually impaired people throughout the world. It has been translated into Swedish, English, German, Spanish, Dutch and Italian and is used by people in more than thirty countries. The feedback that Pirttimaa has received has been all but euphoric.

“For the first time in 64 years I am able to walk around by myself with barely any assistance from other people,” says one Australian user of the application.

The program is an excellent example of how the idea of a single person can quickly transform into an application that is used all over the world. BlindSquare utilises the location program foursquare and the map service OpenStreetMap. In future, Pirttimaa intends to add city guide services and service maps to the application.

This is open knowledge use at its best. It makes innovation easier, cheaper and more democratic. It enables grass roots innovation, commercialisation and testing – and the internet enables good apps to spread around the world faster than ever.

This blog was originally published 30 August 2012 in Good News from Finland.

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