Raul Krauthausen is promoting the inclusion and awareness of urban wheelchair users through the first crowdsourced online map of wheelchair-friendly places around the world.
The New Idea
Raul built a crowdsourced online map of wheelchair-accessible and inaccessible places, to provide a simple and efficient way toward better inclusion for wheelchair users in Germany. The online map, (www.wheelmap.org), serves the mobility of impaired communities in several distinct ways: First, it provides the first guide to wheelchair accessible places in Germany, and second, it provides a new and effective platform for creating greater public awareness and social mobilization around issues related to increasing the integration of disabled persons into everyday life in Germany. Raul believes that inaccessibility is not only a problem for people with impaired mobility, but it is an issue that affects all people and their right to an inclusive society. He challenges a discriminatory system that creates separate spaces for people with disabilities throughout their lives. Raul builds his approach on a simple insight: If wheelchair users know which public places are accessible, they are more likely to go there, engage in public life, and realize their full potential.
Raul puts the solution into the hands of everyone: His open data, OpenStreetMap mapping platform, with 40,000 active contributors worldwide, allows every user to tag public places as accessible, inaccessible, or partly accessible to wheelchairs. Thus, Raul radically simplifies the information about wheelchair accessibility. While existing certification schemes too often provide irrelevant and overly detailed data in user-unfriendly ways, wheelmap.org limits complexity and focuses on the relevant accessibility information. This information is easily searchable; it can be sorted and adopted to individual needs and shared with other users. Due to the fact that the user enters the information, in a similar fashion to Wikipedia, everyone helps to grow this powerful tool from the bottom up. By creating open and standardized interfaces to the data, Raul enables third parties to create lists, applications, and other services on top of his service. For example, identifying all educational facilities in Germany without wheelchair access by simply plugging in data from other sources, or lobbying a cinema chain for better accessibility by making their inaccessibility public.
Wheelmap is in the start-up phase, having launched in March 2010 as a beta platform after 12 months of intensive preparation. The functionality will support open source competitions, call-in services, tagging parties, and partnerships. Raul expects wheelmap to be a market leader and cover its own costs through income streams from wheelchair manufacturers or large public events within a year. Thanks to the worldwide reach of OpenStreetMap, Raul intends to spread not only throughout Germany, but to other countries as well.
There are 1.6 million wheelchair users in Germany, and many more individuals use them occasionally or rely on mobility aids such as rolling walkers. These numbers are expected to triple by 2050 as more elderly people will use mobility devices as a result of demographic change. Individuals relying on mobility aids all face a simple yet powerful problem: Not knowing whether a public place is accessible to wheelchairs. As a result, few wheelchair users take part in public life and a vicious cycle of exclusion emerges.
This challenge reflects a broader social problem: In Germany, as in many societies, the welfare system has created separate spaces for people with disabilities. These fall into separate schools from early on in their lives (i.e. with poor average educational achievement) to special workplaces later in their lives (i.e. typically subsidized and lie outside of the regular labor market). As a result, people with disabilities only associate with other disabled people and have far fewer chances to realize their full potential as active members of society.
So far, most efforts to improve the accessibility of public places for people with disabilities are regulated by the government and often require 20+ pages of detailed information that takes into account the span of mobility impairments such as blindness, deafness, short stature, or many others. Consequently, there is little stringent enforcement and very few institutions make the effort to comply and face prohibitive refitting costs.
Raul knew that in almost all cases, this depth of information is either superfluous or too difficult to navigate and use. A simple “(not or partly) accessible for wheelchairs” is sufficient for most people with disabilities. Also, this information does not have to be mandated or regulated by authorities, but can more efficiently be obtained from users themselves. This change in approach emphasizes a much-needed paradigm shift from integrating people with disabilities into “normal” life to including people with and without disabilities in truly shared spaces.
Raul recognized the power of open networks to bring about paradigm shifts in the area of disability rights. Set up as a free and open data platform, wheelmap.org provides a low barrier entry point and a powerful self-help tool to anyone interested in the issue. Built on top of OpenStreetMap systems, the technology comes free, already has a large mobilized user base, and will continue to develop to user needs over time. Every user can easily tag places as accessible, partly accessible, or not accessible to wheelchairs, and a blog and other features allow for additional information sharing and community organizing. The platform works with various input devices including mobile phones, and provides open programming interfaces for third-party applications and websites.
This type of open data online technology is bridging the mobility challenges of wheelchair users utilizing their huge online affinity as they are among the highest users of online technologies. Raul is galvanizing the first online open data application for this population and is growing a thriving community on his online-platform. Already, Raul’s existing blogs and forums are very well known by impaired people in the German-speaking web. Through its additional functionalities wheelmap is not only a self-help tool but also an important interest group bringing people together who are interested in a more integrated society. For example, when a mainstream cinema sold Raul a ticket without telling him that the cinema hall was wheelchair inaccessible, 200 people immediately commented on the incident on wheelmap’s twitter post. Consequently, the cinema called to apologize and soon after signalized the wheelchair accessible halls at the entrances and on their homepages.
Because wheelmap allows for easy identification of wheelchair accessible places within a category in a given geography, the community and its data place pressure on owners to improve the inclusiveness of their facilities. In contrast to existing projects, Raul does not limit wheelchair specific locations, such as therapy centers or toilets. Instead, he wants to include wheelchair users in daily life, focusing on public places of daily life including cafes, clubs, theaters, and basic public services, including public transportation, administrations and banks. Wheelmap.org also works to bridge the information gap between public policy and employer knowledge. The German government provides generous funds for improving accessibility to shop owners, barkeepers, and so on; however, the benefits are rarely utilized by employers because they do not know about them. Wheelmap publicizes this information, making it accessible to all parties and promoting the benefits of accessible locations. Raul therefore uses transparency not only as a tool to improve individual lives, but also to affect a shift in the dominant mindset and to challenge a system that segregates disabled people.
An expert in social marketing, Raul pulls all levers of stakeholder mobilization, including social media, events, and campaigning. He taps into market forces such as the tourism sector and its need to improve accessibility in the face of demographic change. Raul works with related projects and data sources to quickly generate 10,000 plus data points, which he estimates will mark a tipping point at which many chains of stores and restaurants will start contributing their own data.
Raul’s funding strategy is built on leveraging engagement from users and volunteers and generating income from alliances with partners such as wheelchair manufacturers, city authorities and event managers, who can also use a “white label” version of the platform to create their own branded maps.
Wheelmap is the third major project of Raul’s social innovation group, SOZIALHELDEN (German for social heroes). As wheelmap expands, Raul plans to launch new projects, in essence building an ecosystem of ideas to improve the inclusion of people with disabilities (i.e. carry-along folding ramps for wheelchair users).
Raul is a marketing specialist dedicated to solving social problems, and making solving social problems fun. As a child, he lived in both Germany and Colombia, where he witnessed many stark economic divides. With his own genetic bone disorder confining him to a wheelchair, he experienced the social divides facing people with disabilities.
Returning to Berlin, Raul early on dedicated his life to creating social change. He enrolled at the Berlin University of Arts where he studied “strategic communication and planning” and created an award campaign for the Alternative Nobel Prize (Right Livelihood Award) and at the School of Design Thinking at the Hasso-Plattner-Institute where he studied “Design Thinking.” Trained as a radio host, Raul later launched a call-in radio show for people in emotional distress, where he was confronted with poverty, abuse, and loneliness in the dark niches of the welfare state.
Reacting to these social issues with a spirit of inclusiveness, participation and entrepreneurship, Raul co-founded the SOZIALHELDEN platform, a multi-award-winning group of extraordinary changemakers, of which he is the creative mastermind. The group has a track record of creating successful, sustainable and well marketed social innovations, including “Pfandtastisch helfen!”, Germany’s most prominent recycling for social change project. Raul always felt the need to empower people with impaired mobility and to get them better integrated into a very segregated German society. Having many experiences with the German welfare system himself he always wanted to give wheelchair drivers a tool at-hand that makes them more independent and brings them closer together to support each other. While continuing to contribute to the SOZIALHELDEN, Raul now fully concentrates on growing the wheelmap community.