We recently sat down for a conversation with Matt McCann, CEO and Founder of Access Earth – a new app that aims to promote accessibility through public and social participation.
Access Earth is a project that began when Matt took a trip to London in 2012. Matt has cerebral palsy, and had researched and chosen a hotel that, in addition to its desirable price and location, advertised itself as accessible. But, upon his arrival he had to navigate a series of steps to get to the reception desk. When he got to his room, he could not fit his rolling walker through the door. Ultimately, Matt asked for a refund and switched his accommodations – but it was remarkable to him that this first hotel was not nearly as accessible as it had claimed to be online. He also knew that his experience was not an anomaly, but rather something that people with disabilities face every day.
He returned to Ireland and began developing Access Earth – a tool to search, find, and rate the accessibility of public spaces. Matt crowdsources data from user feedback received through the app to capture the accessibility and usability of locations worldwide.
Since its inception over four years ago, Access Earth has gained international traction and has won partnerships from companies as giant as Microsoft. In speaking with Matt, we learned more about how he hopes to transform the public’s relationship to accessibility on a global scale.
Can you explain Access Earth?
The idea behind Access Earth is that it’s both a website and an app that allows people to share accessibility information about the buildings and public spaces they might go to, from coffee shops to museums and concert halls. Users answer a series of yes or no questions such as, “Is there a step-free entrance?” or “Are the doors wide enough?” And that information becomes available to all users. Ultimately, you create your own profile to define what needs are suitable for you, and personalize your experience using the app to more effectively navigate the places you want to go. We’re hoping to make accessibility information widely and easily available.
What are your goals for Access Earth? What sorts of challenges to do you expect to face?
We’re trying to take data and feedback and return it to people as best and as quickly as possible. But that’s where, as we try for more funding and really build our team, we can focus on development and ensure that Access Earth will evolve exactly how we envision that it will.
And the route we’re taking… building relationships is the best route. But relationship building takes time, so it’s kind of a long road for us, but it’s going to be continuous and strong. We don’t want to be this viral flash in the sky, we want to be something that people can go back to every day, in all situations, in all modes of life. And that requires time.
And what are your thoughts on Google Maps’ new accessibility initiative?
It’s great. Seeing that a company the size of Google has decided that this is a relevant issue in need of solving… it’s a fantastic initiative and I’m excited to see how it grows. We know we will keep working and growing too, and the value of a company like ours is that we’re small and can adapt to user feedback a little more quickly than Google can. Perhaps it’s even a collaboration we can anticipate in the future. But Google’s project provides great visibility for accessibility, and it proves there’s a demand for this information and this market. There are people that just need to live their lives, and the more people who are contributing, the better.
You’ve said you hope Access Earth will become “the world’s most accessible accessibility platform.” Can you explain what accessibility means to you?
Access isn’t just the ramps and the doors. To me, it’s about choice. It’s all about providing options for people from, “these are the number of coffee shops you can go to,” to “these are the hotels you can stay at,” or “this is what it will be like when you get there.” We want to eliminate fear of the unknown.
What are your plans for 2017?
Well, we hope to continue making major updates to the app. And we’re really aiming for as much feedback as we can possibly collect. It will help us improve and distribute more data about more locations. Our next big event in the US will be the Abilities Expo in LA, at the end of March, and the one in New Jersey in May. We have a lot to do, and time is moving so quickly. But this work… what we’re trying to do… well, it’s not really work at all.