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Project Sidewalk, created by University of Washington and Maryland researchers, maps out how accessible city streets with personalized data visualization

GRAPHIC PHOTO: GARY ALLEN
 - Project Sidewalk is asessing the accessabiilty of sidewalks across the nation.

The city of Newberg has joined a number of North American cities in mapping out its streets and sidewalks to allow anyone to see the streets interactively online.

The effort is part of a program called Project Sidewalk, created by researchers at the Universities of Washington and Maryland "focused on transforming how sidewalk accessibility data is collected and visualized using a combination of crowdsourcing and machine learning," according to its website.

The website allows anyone, regular citizens and government workers alike, to virtually travel through cities to locate, label and assess sidewalks. Those wanting to explore can do so from their laptop or desktop anywhere. Contributors help develop the mapping tools that in the end will help create more transparency about city accessibility.

The program allows users to explore city streets and sidewalks, find problems that may exist and then assess the severity of any problems. Users can label areas to improve city planning, build accessibility-aware mapping tools and train machine learning algorithms to automatically find accessibility issues, according to the Newberg webpage, https://sidewalk-newberg.cs.washington.edu/.

In Newberg, 37 percent of the city has been mapped for a total of 40 miles covered. More than 4,700 labels have been placed with the program.

Jon Froehlich, a professor at the University of Washington who is the lead professor on Project Sidewalk, said the project first launched by mapping the streets of Washington, D.C. He reasoned that the nation's capital is a large city with a well sourced department of transportation, so they wanted to look at smaller cities, particularly in the Pacific Northwest.

But, he said, people all over the world were viewing the D.C. visualization.

He added that a Newberg resident reached out to them about bringing Project Sidewalk to the city, and they worked with Mayor Rick Rogers's office to get a better sense of Newberg.

"For us it would be great to connect more with the community of Newberg," Froehlich said.

He added that Newberg's roadways were already 37 percent mapped out that was pretty good considering they haven't advertised or made many connections in the area. He said the goal is obviously to get to 100 percent, which he didn't believe would be difficult as Newberg doesn't have the extensive miles of roadways to look at like bigger cities do. For example, he said Washington, D.C., had more than 1,000 miles of roadways to map. And Seattle, which they will do soon but haven't launched, has 2,000 miles.

"Part of it is reaching out to the community," he said.

The project is part of a dissertation project by University of Washington doctorate student Manaswi Saha, who is working to visualize the data they receive to give people a better understanding of the state of the infrastructure in areas around the country.

For example, Newberg was broken up into 12 regions, and each region would get a score based on the data they receive. Froehlich said this could be important in determining how the city invests in improvements. Or could help people moving into the city decide where they want to live, or for people traveling to the city to determine where to go.

Froehlich encouraged anyone in Newberg who wants to learn more or participate to reach out on the website.

Saha said the goal is to create an interactive visualization tool with the data they collect, which will be important toward understanding accessibility and to see what areas are accessible and which aren't.

"It's important not just for mobility impartments, but also for government officials dealing with fixing sidewalks," she said. "It will help them with their efforts and with prioritization of where these should be done."

Newberg is the second city after Washington, D.C., to be studied, she said, with Seattle coming later this month. She said they will study more cities going forward, including more on the east coast, although they haven't settled on any further locations. In D.C., she said they spoke with government officials, people with mobility issues and their caregivers to see what value each would get from this data.

"Once we have the data it's hard to make sense of it, so visualization is the best way of that," she said.

Additionally, the data will help give accessibility scores to regions in the cities, so people can see which areas are accessible to them and which aren't. For example, she said one street may be accessible to a person in a push wheelchair but not for someone in an electric wheelchair, because the person with the push wheelchair may have the upper body strength to get over a curb that the other might not.

"For different people accessibility means different things," Saha said. "So we have a personalized score for that user."

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