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Case Study: Mobile Multi-Modal Mobility Guide (Berlin, Germany)

2019-02-22

By DENG Yuanchang / Sun Yat-Sen University


Berlin was a deserving city for the 3rd Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation in 2016. This study tour took place during September 2nd and 4th, 2017.


The m4guide (Mobile Multi-Modal Mobility Guide) research started in December 2012 and ended in May 2016. As part of the “From door to door – a mobility initiative for the local public transport network of the future” research, it was granted 4 million euros by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs. The private companies involved contributed an additional 1.6 million euros, in the form of technologies or products.


Background

The initiative of m4guide (Mobile Multi-Modal Mobility Guide) is aimed at developing a continuous “door-to-door” travel information and navigation system for Berlin-Mitte, which enables seamless navigation in public streets, including the use of the ÖPNV (local public transport network), and route guidance in buildings.

This initiative is led by Senate Department for Urban Development and Environment, and supported by German Federation for the Blind and Partially Sighted (DBSV); District of Soest; and partners from research (Fraunhofer FOKUS), IT (BLIC, IVU, HaCon) and transport companies (RLG, BVG) as well as transport associations (VBB).

This project places a special focus on the traveling needs of the blind and partially sighted. During the development process, DBSV and Fichtenberg Secondary School, Berlin played an active role in demand analysis, user behaviors, and tests. 


Process

The smooth operation of this initiative can be attributed to the foundation established formerly and good project research mechanism. In 2010, the Senate Department for Urban Development conducted the feasibility study “GALILEO-based comprehensive transportation tracking and navigation system for blind and highly visually impaired people in Berlin (3MGuide)”, in partnership with heureka Consult, IVU, VBB, and Fraunhofer FIRST. The research on indoor and outdoor tracking and route guidance in the feasibility study was continued in the m4guide initiative. The outcome of another research project Guide4Blind in Soest, in which a blind-friendly guidance system for local public transport was developed, was also incorporated in this initiative. 

The public-private partnership proved advantageous in terms of organizational structure and resources. As regards organizational structure, there was both monitoring from government departments and active participation from enterprises (including IT and transport companies) and professional associations (including transport associations and associations for the blind and partially sighted). In the respect of resources and finance, aside from government grant, participating companies provided various resources, such as technologies, products, and labor. As for the companies, the involvement is a test bed for their technologies on one hand, and on the other, an effective promotion of themselves and their products.

  

Outcome

This program can promote the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ratified by Germany in 2009. It is also important in increasing the mobility of people (particularly the blind and visually impaired) and the capacity of people to participate in social activities.


Challenges

There also encountered a lot of challenges, though, primarily technical ones:

1.  In order to provide outdoor navigation, the program must gather information of street objects, establish relevant digital models, and draw street maps accordingly. This is a laborious task, and it was never before carried out in Germany. The project team must create relevant information index and rules for information gathering.

2. With existing smart phone technologies, there is no good solution to positioning and tracking of pedestrians in crowded city center and inside buildings. Therefore the project team had to try plenty of new approaches to reach the goal.

3. The design, deploy, and connection of the components for different modes (indoor and outdoor walking as well as public transport routes) also posed a big problem.

To address the above issues, the project team made many explorations and achieved positive results. They compiled an index and made rules for gathering information on street objects, and based on that, created a street map that covered 500 kilometers of roads. In terms of indoor guidance, as satellite navigation would be invalid, Fraunhofer FOKUS proposed an integrated technology (including WIFI density, inertial sensors, Bluetooth, and optical technologies) for pinpointing and tracking. Although some technical problems could not find a good solution yet, the project team is closely following latest developments in this domain. They are getting prepared to utilize the coming Galileo satellite navigation system to raise positioning precision.

The initiative also faced other challenges other than technical ones. To utilize and test the results of the project, a navigation app was developed for the International Garden Exhibition, targeted at the blind and partially sighted. This app is, however, not popular. A few months since the exhibition, there have only been 1000+ downloads. Furthermore, a majority of the users haven’t given a good rating over its usability and won’t considering using it again. Manuela Myszka, Vice Chairwoman of ABSV, thinks there are other reasons for this than the imperfect system: people (especially those who are over 65 years old) are not used to smartphones and there isn’t enough publicity of the project as well as training of users. 

   

Highlights

Photogrammetric survey was applied in the program to obtain extensive vector geo-data. This also pushed forward digitalization of the city. And a prototype navigation app was developed. In addition, this navigation system will be integrated into the existing public transport navigation system, Fahrinfo, so as to ensure continuous and widespread utilization of the results of this project in Berlin.

1. People-centric development idea with emphasis on demands of the disadvantaged

The objective of this project is to provide travel information and navigation service to everyone living in Germany, including around 145,000 blind people and 1.2 million partially-sight people. Therefore, DBSV and Fichtenberg Secondary School was invited to join the program as important stakeholders and participated in the whole process: meetings were held to learn about their thoughts on functions as well as how they use navigation systems, and they were invited to test the systems and provide feedbacks.

During the development process of the navigation app, considerations were given to user interface, functions, accessibility, robustness, and voice navigations, in order to fit different user groups. This process reflects the development idea of putting people in the first place.

Also impressive is the care Berlin shows toward the disadvantaged groups. The city is moving to a barrier-free city, and this can be seen in its public infrastructure. In front of libraries and museums, there are parking spaces specifically for the physically challenged. Within these public buildings, there are lowered information desks and handrails for those who are seated in armchairs as well as a high-contrast stripe on every step of the staircase for the visually impaired.

2. Focus on efficient resources utilization and sustainability-oriented resources investment

The project has collected around 500 kilometers of vector geo-data about the city’s roads. This is a fundamental basis of the project. In addition to being used in this program, the data collected will be integrated into the city’s infrastructure data platform and be open for use, which could serve as support for researches in autonomous driving and navigation. Besides, the data could give rise to geo-information start-ups. In a nutshell, this project could avail the development of the city’s information and services industries.

While it was putting resources in the implementation, the government also paid attention to attracting external resources: the implementation also relied on various resources from participating enterprises and associations. In consideration of the sustainability of the project, Berlin city government will provide 200,000 euros each year in order to gather and maintain basic city data. Berlin-Brandenburg regional government will also provide support to the project team, including 200,000 euros per year during 2017-18 fiscal years, so as to improve relevant technologies and support the development of the application system.


Lessons Learned

1. Equal emphasis on superstructure and foundation

Cities differ in where they are at the development spectrum and what they are developed upon. Consequently, focus must be placed on tailored “base” work so as to lay a solid foundation in support of the city’s development.

In this initiative, the collection and handling of basic city data is an example of such base work. Berlin’s managing departments have taken this opportunity to promote the building of its city database with innovative technologies. In addition, the sharing of data was planned at the very beginning of the implementation: it will be open to the public as well as municipal departments.

In the aspect of smart mobility, many cities have designed magnificent development plans, but lack planning for the work on foundational data. Some cities have not yet digitized the most basic road data. In terms of road and street view data, many IT and internet companies have even more of it. At the same time, plenty of cities face the challenges of keeping data open and sharing data between government departments. Therefore, foundational planning and innovative management methods must be made in order to push forward the building of a database for basic city data.

2. People-centric thinking combined with technological innovation

Cities are attaching importance to the leading role technological innovation plays in urban governance and development. Technological innovation can no doubt bring new tools and methods to governance. Yet governance is a complex mechanism. Technical methods must bear the objective to providing better services to citizens. That is to say, urban governance must be people-centric.

A feature of m4guide is to put this people-centric idea into practice. This initiative was conceived to enable better travel for citizens and cater to people’s needs to participate in various social activities. What’s valuable is that Berlin treats every citizen equally, developing an application system to satisfy the needs of the blind and partially sighted. Furthermore, stakeholders were invited to the whole development process, and users’ ratings are an important element of evaluating the initiative.

It is easy to notice that every detail in each corner of Berlin is elaborately designed. The specialized design and facilities in barrier-free urban construction and protection facilities of pedestrian passage on the street due to temporary construction are good demonstrations. Also, since the temporary construction occupies part of the bicycle lanes, the city temporarily uses yellow curve to fill his bike lanes in order to maintain the continuity of bike lanes and guarantee the safety of the rider traveling the city.


Inspirations

1. Put people first and promote caring for the disabled.

The degree of care for disabled people is an important indicator of the degree of civilization in a city. It is worth noting that Berlin’s m4guide attaches great importance to the application of new technologies to address the mobility of the blind and visually impaired. On one hand, cities should pay close attention to the development of cutting-edge technologies like Internet of Things and cloud services. On the other hand, they should listen to the views of people with disabilities and understand their habits as users. Through this, they can improve the navigation system for the blind and provide better services for them.

2. Be dedicated to improving people’s wellbeing.

m4guide is a part of Berlin’s effort do build a barrier-free city. This is an arduous task, but Berlin has displayed its commitment to the fulfillment of this goal, which is . Before implementation, the government carried out a feasibility study. After the completion of the project, the government paid great attention to the improvement and application of the project results as well as providing continuous financial support. Although there are still improvements to be made in the project itself and technologies, all stakeholders – government entities, businesses, and citizens – are dedicated to this cause and are confident of its realization with the advancement of technologies. In a word, the advancement of people’s livelihood will be faced with many technical and social challenges and thus requires constant attention and efforts of the government. 

3. Make good planning before implementing the development projects.

During its development, a city should fully consider the life and work of its citizens. First of all, the government should make good planning and publicize it so that the citizens will be expecting the changes in the city. Then, the plan shall be implemented accordingly. As for this project, the current plan might not have taken all aspects into consideration. For instance, Berlin’s infrastructure plan before did not give too much consideration to the barrier-free demand of the visually impaired. Berlin is now accommodating the demand in its future planning instead of taking rash decisions to reconstruct all streets and public facilities and build barrier-free facilities and paths. There has also been integration with other development projects to improve the existing barrier-free facilities and streets. In this way, the city avoids duplicated developments and mitigates the inconvenience to the public.