Access Earth is mapping the largest home-to-destination accessibility database
This week I sat down with the co-founders of Access Earth an Irish startup that is building the world's largest database of accessibility information, where accessibility refers to universal access to everyone regardless of the obstacles they face. Matthew McCann, CEO and Donal McClean, COO met in college and I was delighted to hear the part Microsoft played getting Access Earth started.
Donal told the story, "Back in 2014, we were both studying information technology and Microsoft came to the campus to promote the Imagine Cup. We decided to throw our hat into the ring because this was a project that was close to Matt's heart because of his lived experience."
It's a classic story of startup ideation born of opportunity and personal experience. Access Earth came together with a hugely ambitious plan to address a market need that Matt knew acutely.
Matt explained, "I have cerebral palsy and I use a rollator to get around. I was in London for the 2012 Paralympics and the hotel I booked said it was accessible on their website. But when I got there, there were steps leading up to it. I went to a second hotel and the only wheelchair-accessible room was on the ground floor and it still had steps leading to it."
It was this kind of frustration that fuelled the vision of Access Earth. It's not just about making sure that everyone has access to a concert hall or a sports stadium, it's about what Matt and Donal describe as providing a seat-to-seat solution for getting from your home to the perfect spot in the venue of your choice.
Matt was also clear on the target audience for the information that Access Earth provides, "It isn't just for wheelchair users. You might have sprained your ankle and be using crutches temporarily. We also know that some people have accessibility issues just by virtue of getting older. We want the relevant information to be available for every user, and just as easy to find as the venue's opening hours or public transport options."
Building a comprehensive database of accessibility information is not a small undertaking, Donal explained, "We've been in the European Space Agency's business Incubation Center so we can start developing above-ground photographs and combining bash with our own AI-trained image classifier to identify car parking spaces within the built environment. The challenge is making sure that we can connect that database to those that need that information the most."
One of the clearest cases of Access Earth making a real difference comes from their work with Smart Sandyford, part of the Smart Dublin project which "brings together technology providers, academia and citizens to transform public services and enhance quality of life."
Prior to the pilot that Access Earth ran in Sandyford, there was not a lot of knowledge about the accessible car parking infrastructure for the area. Often cities do not record the number or location of private accessible car parking spaces. According to their records there was only one accessible parking space in Sandyford.
Donal explained what happened when Access Earth came on board, "They were able to use our platform to create in-depth accessibility reports. With above-ground image data that got fed through our processors, we were able to give a full breakdown including the type of hatching that was used and how many accessible parking spots were in the specific areas. Sandyford went from one accessible parking space to 175. It was incredibly gratifying to see Access Earth having a real-world impact."
Just like with every startup I have spoken to, while the past year has been challenging, it has also thrown up some new avenues and business cases. Donal spoke about some of the features the company has been developing, "A sports stadium, for example, wants to know every square inch of their building and have a digital twin so they can represent really important accessible assets to their visitors. We've even incorporated COVID-19 social distancing practices into the information we can provide and highlighted the locations of hand sanitizer stations."
Access Earth was always designed to be a global solution rather than a global one. The team has been participating in a European program called Smart & Healthy Ageing through People Engaging in Supportive Systems or SHAPES and when they complete a round of seed funding later this year, they will start to roll out to the US also.
Looking back Matt described the experience of Access Earth so far, "Accessibility affects everybody at some point. Scaling the idea we had as a college project into something that is reaching across Europe and beyond has been fantastic."
Donal agreed, "The Access Earth story is really a Microsoft story from those early days with the Imagine Cup through to visiting Seattle and beyond. Our AI platform would not exist without the cloud access Microsoft offered. We know that Microsoft's mission is to empower everyone to achieve more, well we've been empowered!"