En route to personal guidance for mobility-impaired users

Alimos 28 April 2006Help may soon be at hand for people with mobility or cognitive impairments, enabling them to live and function more independently, thanks to a new software platform being designed and developed by European researchers. But the work is likely to interest a far wider audience than originally intended. Working with partners that include major names in telecom services and information provision worldwide, researchers in the IST-funded ASK-IT project behind the research are developing a system that will offer a holistic and integrated approach to guided travel between one location and another.


Imagine you've just arrived in Tokyo or Athens, or Damascus. Next step, get to the town centre, find the tourism bureau, find a hotel. Problem - you cannot read any of the signs. What next? As Angelos Bekiaris of the Hellas Centre for Research and Technology in Athens explained: "I speak four languages, but when I arrive in Japan and look for information, I'm effectively illiterate. The point is that everyone will find themselves in this situation at one time or another."

ASK-IT is not due to finish until December 2008, yet just 18 months into the project the participants expect by June 2006 to have developed a standard ontological framework using XML which will be available publicly on the Internet. This common structure has already been agreed by over 80 content providers, ranging from major telecom carriers to city municipalities and chambers of commerce.

The ASK-IT platform is in two parts. The first is a small additional piece of software on a latest-generation mobile phone or Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), which users can program to contain all the information about your personal needs and preferences, e.g. wheelchair user, sight impaired, hearing impaired or limited cognitive functions.

The second part of the system is a Web service which houses a set of data conforming to the ASK-IT common ontology, the meanings and relationships among terms and concepts in the ASK-IT service. This Web service could for example host information about local facilities and services. This data is housed within a common ontological framework which is able to link dynamically to other local information and service provider databases.

Already some eight pilot sites at major cities across Europe are building their ASK-IT database of local services, ready for demonstrations to start in 2007. These cities are Budapest in Romania, The Hague in The Netherlands, Genoa in Italy, Helsinki in Finland, Madrid in Spain, Newcastle in the United Kingdom, Nuremburg in Germany, and Thessaloniki in Greece.

Each site is managed by a local consortium including a telecom provider, a number of information providers, local mobility-impaired organisations, etc. Typically around 10 local organisations are involved in producing the content for a local site, which is managed by one or two lead partners. These lead partners vary from location to location. In Madrid for example the managing partner is the local municipality. In Nuremburg, it is the Chamber of Commerce. And in Newcastle it is the University of Newcastle.

The idea is that the business model for each site can vary, depending on local circumstances and availability of suitable site management skills. The intention of the ASK-IT participants is to lay the groundwork for a business model that will continue to be self-sustaining, even after the close of the project.

Technical Manager Bekiaris stressed that the ASK-IT system works in real-time, via your personal mobile communications device. "Say I'm a wheelchair user travelling from home to Sweden. At home I will plan the trip, and the system will know that I am a wheelchair user and query information about hotels with suitable access. I need to know how to reach the airport - so the system provides multimodal transport information depending on my preferences. If I'm travelling by bus for example it makes recommendations based on the availability of suitable wheelchair ramps. If I'm travelling by car, it will recommend parking where wheelchair access is available."

"Inside the bus it works with the bus routing system, so can tell you when to disembark for example. In the car it will link via Bluetooth with the in-car navigation system. Once inside the airport, the system links with airport wireless networks to guide you to the departure gate."

ASK-IT exploits the positioning resources of GSM networks and the GPS satellite system to understand your location, and augments this data with the resources of the Russian EGNOS GPS network to provide more precise positioning information that is accurate to within one metre. This is seen as the best solution until Galileo comes on-line in 2008.

Users can also program their device to search for information on added-value services, and can book and pay for such services on-line, according to Angelos Bekiaris. He stressed that all these facilities are possible using standard software that is now under development and being incorporated into new-generation mobile phones and PDAs, thanks to the involvement of partners such as Siemens, the project co-ordinator, Microsoft, Alcatel, Nokia and others.

Angelos Bekiaris acknowledged the real contribution made by the earlier IMAGINE-IT project to the consortium's progress. "IMAGINE-IT gave use of many of the modules that we needed to ensure seamless integration of the various travel modes. We have been able to take that basis and add the framework to support special user profiles, for example disabilities."

"The result will be a user-programmable service that will be a radical improvement on what has gone before, for general users as well as those with impairments", he stated. "The information that is available now is so generic that most people don't bother with it. But we are developing a basis for a wealth of information that will be much more useful, because the user's access device can be personalised with his or her own preferences. And it will be dynamic, if a service breaks down or is unavailable, your device will be able to seek out alternatives, all in real-time."

For more information you can contact Dr. Angelos Bekiaris, Center for Research and Technology Hellas, Poseidonos Av. 17, GR-17455 Alimos, Athens, Greece, Tel. +30-210-9853194, Fax: +30-210-9853193, or visit the ASK-IT project Web site.

This article has been reprinted from the IST Results Web site.

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