Rain or shine, the West Michigan lakeshore attracts tourists from around the world.
Holland State Park, Grand Haven State Park, and the Grand Haven Lighthouse and Pier rank No. 1 to 3, respectively, according to TripAdvisor.
Not all top attractions – or restaurants, or hotels – would get top ratings from travelers with mobility challenges, however.
Having up-to-date accessibility information on travel destination can make the difference in how fully you’re able to enjoy it when you get there.
That’s why a group of current and former computer science students developed a software application they call “Access Earth.”
The Access Earth app is an easy way for smartphone users with disabilities to preview and review access to public places to benefit others who use wheelchairs, walkers, tricycles, crutches and other assistive devices.
Access Earth was the Global Citizenship Award winner and was the $5,000 third-prize winner overall in the 2014 finals of the Imagine Cup, a worldwide technology design competition for students sponsored by Microsoft. The finals were held in August at Seattle.
“We didn’t just develop this for the competition,” said Matthew McCann, 24, team captain. “As we build our database, we hope Access Earth will become a valuable and reliable source of information for people around the world.”
McCann, a masters-level student at Maynooth University in Kildare, Ireland, envisioned the Access Earth app after a trip to the 2012 Olympic Games in London with KC Grant, the only American on the design team.
McCann has cerebral palsy and uses a rolling walker to steady himself. The hotel he booked was, according to its website, “accessible.” Yet the room doorways were too narrow to accommodate his Rollator. Also, there was no ramp option to avoid a three-step rise from the entrance to the reception desk.
Most accessibility rating systems just don’t provide enough information for someone with mobility challenges to know if a place will be suitable for them, McCann said.
He and fellow students at Maynooth developed Access Earth outside of their coursework to archive reviews. Users can also leave a meaningful rating based on a series of specific yes and no questions based on construction regulations.
Similar apps like Wheelmap and DisabledGo use rating continuums that aren’t specific enough for people who require certain accessibility features, McCann said.
The Access Earth app works on smartphones that use the Windows platform. Look for it in the Windows store. The students are developing mobile apps this fall that will work on iPhone and Android devices. Check iTunes and Marketplace for those apps.
The app can also be downloaded from the developers’ website, www.accessearth.org.
But you don’t need to have the app to start leaving accessibility ratings and reviews for West Michigan attractions like Windmill Island, The Musical Fountain, and Tunnel Park.
Site reviews can be entered at accessearth.org by viewing the site through any Internet browser.
Fact is, Access Earth will become more useful as its database of ratings and reviews grows.
“Participation from a lot of people all over the world is what’s going to help Access Earth make a difference,” said Grant, 23, a Massachusetts resident who’s preparing to start a clinical biological research program winter semester at a Rhode Island college.
Other members of the Access Earth design team are: Donal McClean, 25, now working on a master’s degree at Athlone Institute of Technology in Co. Westmeath, Ireland; and Jack Gallagher, 22, a recent Maynooth graduate now working for IBM in Dublin, Ireland.
So, who’s going to be the first to review Mt. Pisgah and the Tri-Cities Historical Museum?