By Joan Leotta
GPS technology has worked wonders to help people lay out paths to new locations, but for those with impaired mobility, navigating those paths can be an exercise in overcoming unknown obstacles. For Jason DaSilva, problems with stairways, broken sidewalks and narrow or step-up entries began to mount with his diagnosis of MS in 2005. But rather than just accept these impediments, he created AXS (pronounced “access”) Map, a mobile app that allows users to locate truly accessible venues around town, find ways to get there and read reviews that rate the accessibility of neighborhood businesses.
Development of the Project
Like many people with mobility issues, DaSilva did not set out to take action that would make a difference to anyone—not even himself. “My first response [to everyday obstacles] was to try to simply go on,” he says. But when he fell in the sand on a family vacation in 2006, ignoring his MS was no longer an option. He turned to his mother for solace; she gave him something better: a challenge. She told him that he was privileged and talented and needed to do something about these difficulties.
This call to action sparked DaSilva’s creativity. A graduate of Vancouver’s prestigious Emily Carr University of Art + Design, DaSilva had already won awards for his films. Having observed firsthand the problems to be encountered while trying to get around using a walker, wheelchair or scooter, he soon envisioned a mapping device to let people with disabilities find the easiest routes to get around within a city and the location of accessible entrances to buildings. “It was 2007 when I got the idea for the mapping,” he says, “but the how of the project came later.” Getting others to share in the desirability of producing such a commodity was his next step.
In the meantime, DaSilva continued to receive awards for his total body of work, including films on Canadian television stations, HBO, PBS, CBC and Sundance. In 2008, he received an “Emerging Innovator” recognition at the Canada New Media Awards.
To apply his filmmaking skills to the problem of mobility, DaSilva, his wife Alice Cook and others including animator Mihai Wilson joined together to make a documentary. DaSilva served as the director and also as the main character, exploring his vision and highlighting the need for a mapping system. The resulting film “When I Walk” came out in 2009 and became the springboard for AXS Maps.
From Film to App
The film’s success spilled over into publicity for the mapping system, raising its profile enough to attract funding. “The film made the need for such a mapping apparent and helped people realize it was practical to devise such a system,” says DaSilva. “It was not until ‘When I Walk’ was finished that people realized the practicality of doing what I wanted with the mapping. In addition, the film highlights the mobility struggle of people with disabilities in ways that will hopefully provoke dialogue in every community where it is viewed.”
In 2011 DaSilva received a grant from Google Earth Outreach and some other foundations to build a prototype of the AXS Map, working with, among others, app developer Kevin Bluer. “We use Google Earth technology,” DaSilva explains, “to create something that can be put on the mobile telephone for both Android and Apple models.
Bluer and DaSilva first pitched the project, which they called “Maps for Good,” at the prestigious Google I/O conference. In June 2012, DaSilva partnered with AXS Lab, an organization dedicated to telling stories of disability through film, new media and technology, and renamed the app AXS Maps. Further work on the mapping app will include a new feature that enables users to upload photographs when sharing feedback.
The awards bestowed upon the film have continued to raise awareness of the app, which is free to use. The film and its maker were invited to show at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in 2013, where “When I Walk” was very favorably reviewed. (It had not been entered in any of the competitions.) In competition at the Vancouver Film Festival later that same year, the film won “Best Canadian Feature, Hot Docs 2013.” People who want to bring the film to their communities or find out where it is showing can go to the website www.wheniwalk.com.
DaSilva hopes that AXS Map will provide those with disabilities greater freedom and spontaneity when navigating their communities and making everyday decisions. “I want AXS Map to serves as a tool to connect a growing network of like-minded people who support inclusive neighborhood practices and policies,” he says.