Making a more accessible, accurate campus accessibility map

Northern Arizona University has embarked on a project to help individuals with physical and visual disabilities more easily navigate its Flagstaff campus.
By: | October 7, 2020
Creating a new, better type of campus accessibility map requires significant and precise data collection and 3D modeling.Creating a new, better type of campus accessibility map requires significant and precise data collection and 3D modeling.

Students, faculty and visitors with disabilities at any college or university campus can usually find a campus accessibility map online to assist with getting around. Such maps pinpoint accessible parking and sidewalks, wheelchair ramps, elevators, automatic doors and more.

But the typical accessibility map isn’t highly precise about locations and doesn’t actually provide directions for getting to a precise destination. Northern Arizona University is taking a new approach. “The effort uses state-of-the-art ground-based LiDAR to create a map of campus which is accurate to 3 cm,” says Jamie Axelrod, director of disability resources at the university. “That means it can accurately portray ground slope and slope changes, which are important for informing people about accessible routes of travel.”

In addition, the data can provide directions that get people to their exact destination—“as opposed to several feet near their destination,” he says. “That may seem trivial, but for a blind or visually impaired individual it is very important, as arriving in the vicinity of a location is not as helpful as arriving at the actual location. The accuracy of the data is what is so revolutionary for accessible mapping.”

Another problem with most campus accessibility maps is … accessibility. They point to accessibility features but won’t work for individuals using assistive technology. “The map this project would help us create will be fully accessible to the users who need it,” Axelrod says.

How the map is being created

NAU is working with Quantum Spatial, a geospatial data firm, on the project. The university’s GIS and astronomy departments are assisting by using LiDAR, a remote sensing technology being used in surveying that uses light in the form of lasers to measure distances. High-resolution maps programmed to work with assistive technology devices such as screen readers will be developed using the survey.

Quantum Spatial, meanwhile, is collecting data via drone and a terrestrial laser scanner to create a full 360-degree LiDAR-based map of the campus, which has 400 acres. The resulting map will provide accurate information about slope and other path-of-travel features to determine the best routes for those who use wheelchairs or want to avoid stairs.

In a second stage of the project, NAU will enhance the map by integrating audio assistive technologies for those with vision impairments.

Scott Nowicki, lead R&D scientist at Quantum Spatial, says the company isn’t working with any other higher ed institutions on a similar effort. “This project—developing a uniquely-detailed high-resolution model of the exterior campus environment—will provide all students, staff and visitors with a valuable resource to help them easily navigate the sprawling campus.”

The way-finding tool, he adds, will have barriers and features of campus “dynamically interpreted, based on the needs of the individual.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.