In the true spirit of innovation one man is paving the way in field of accessible road crossings. Gavin Neate, founder of Neatebox, is developing smartphone apps to support independent living, one of which named, simply Button, is offering users hands free access at controlled crossings.
By installing the free Button app, users can set up their smartphones to effectively push the button for them at Neatebox enabled controlled crossings, giving people vital extra seconds to prepare to cross safely. Once the control box has been activated, it will cause the smartphone to vibrate as a ‘green man’ indicator.
After serving with The RAF for 10 years as a Police Dog Handler, Gavin Neate began an 18 year career with Guide Dogs for the Blind. His comprehensive knowledge of visual impairment and routine experience of poorly installed pedestrian crossings led him to design a unique system by which any person living with reduced mobility, could safely and automatically operate a pedestrian crossing using their own smart technology. The company is installing the system in Scotland and having recently won a national award for road safety is receiving increasing interest from across the UK for further installations.
But why did Gavin feel this innovation was necessary and how does a Guide Dog Mobility Instructor with no knowledge of business start a company and develop a solution?
“The more I worked for Guide Dogs the more I became frustrated that my clients were being forced to develop workarounds to deal with bad design,” Gavin explained. “I have always had an inventive mind but didn’t think for a second that I could actually influence policy. At the end of the day though, I felt that I had to either continue training my clients to deal with the problems they encountered or actually get involved in communicating my ideas to the designers and developers of the infrastructure”.
Gavin started Neatebox in 2011 whilst working full time for Guide Dogs, and spent the next 5 years designing and developing the crossing system.
“I knew I wanted to use the smartphone to press the crossing button” he said. “It was being used more and more and I felt that if I could press the button automatically it would mean the phone could stay in the person’s pocket of bag and they could concentrate on aligning themselves and crossing the road safely”.
The system, which has been called ‘Button”, was launched in September having been installed throughout the town of Largs on the West coast of Scotland and is a free download from either the Apple store or on Android through Google Play.
“We hope that as the eyes of the world turn to Largs we will have the opportunity to demonstrate what’s possible and prove that our solution is not just useful for visually impaired people but all people living with either permanent or temporary reduced mobility”.
I asked Gavin how long it will be before the system can be used across the UK.
“We built into the app the ability for users to request crossing themselves. Download the free app sign up and just request venues,” he answered. “We will then contact the Local Authority and send them details of the system”, he continued. “The idea being that ultimately we install where the crossings are needed most first”.
A large proportion of people with sight loss rely on accessing the crossings tactile cone, located to the bottom rear of the push button control box, the rotating movement of which confirms when it is safe to cross, in the absence of being able to see the green man.
From my personal perspective, as a guide dog owner, whilst the current system works well, it has the potential to work even better. One issue with the current system is the need to position yourself within reach of the tactile cone, something that’s not always possible in the heavy footfall of a busy town or city centre. The ‘Button’ app would vibrate via my smartphone to indicate when safe to cross negating the need to feel the tactile cone.
A further issue lies with the design of some crossings. Whilst you would expect the button control box to be aligned with the kerb edge and the tactile paving, in many cases the crossing pole is actually set back from the road, sometimes by several feet. This means you don’t start your crossing from the kerb edge and can inadvertently be stood blocking the pavement for other pedestrians as you wait for the tactile cone to rotate. The ‘Button’ app would avoid this by allowing one to find and wait by the kerb edge before vibrating a ‘safe to cross’ signal. This hands-free element to ‘Button’ has the potential to aid pedestrians right across the disabilities spectrum.
Neatebox’s Button is not yet in my region, but hopefully with the ability to suggest future areas for implementation via the app, the people who could benefit from a roll-out will be in a strong position to voice this to local authorities.
If you would like to download the app it can be found if you look for “Button by Neatebox” and if you want to contact Gavin and his team directly please write to email@example.com.
By Gavin Neate & Sam Heaton