Making smart cities work for people. No. 5. Böblingen’s crowdsourced accessibility maps

A screenshot of Wheelmap's accessibility map of Böblingen. Image Wheelmap.

In the age of Google maps, when we have detailed maps of most cities across the world, it’s easy to assume that there is little need for citizen engagement in mapping their cities.

Yet many of the most important aspects of a place aren’t mapped: how easy is it to walk around the city? Is this a safe bike route? Is this area accessible to wheelchair users?

These are just some of the questions that crowdsourced mapping can help to answer. Wheelmap is an online map and smartphone app developed by the German NGO Sozialhelden, which enables people to share information about how accessible places are by wheelchair.


The app uses a traffic light system to rate accessibility. (Places without data are marked in grey.) Users can also leave reviews, on everything from toilets and train stations to pubs and theatres. Launched in 2010, users have mapped the accessibility of 500,000 locations in cities across the world.

As well as working as a guide for people in wheelchairs, the app can help to change the way city governments think about accessibility. For example, after learning about the app, the town of Böblingen in Germany recently asked student volunteers to explore and map barriers and obstacles in venues across the city using Wheelmap.

Crowdsourced mapping can also be used as a lobbying tool: once all of this information and evidence is collected, NGOs and community groups can make a much stronger case for their governments to take action.

An important next step for organisations like Wheelmap is to expand their user base. While a detailed breakdown of who uses the app isn't available, voluntary contribution of data through apps tends to be limited to the young, affluent and politically active.

If city governments begin to take more notice of crowdsourced data, this could lead to a situation where the needs and demands of these groups are prioritised over those who aren't so digitally connected. Finding ways to motivate these groups to engage, and capturing the voices and opinions of those who don't want to engage, will be an important step in making sure the benefits of crowdsourcing data are broadly shared.

 Tom Saunders is a senior researcher at Nesta, the UK innovation charity. He is one of the authors of the "Rethinking smart cities from the ground up" report. 

 
 
 
 

As EU funding is lost, “levelling up” needs investment, not just rhetoric

Oh, well. Image: Getty.

Regional inequality was the foundation of Boris Johnson’s election victory and has since become one of the main focuses of his government. However, the enthusiasm of ministers championing the “levelling up” agenda rings hollow when compared with their inertia in preparing a UK replacement for European structural funding. 

Local government, already bearing the brunt of severe funding cuts, relies on European funding to support projects that boost growth in struggling local economies and help people build skills and find secure work. Now that the UK has withdrawn its EU membership, councils’ concerns over how EU funds will be replaced from 2021 are becoming more pronounced.

Johnson’s government has committed to create a domestic structural funding programme, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), to replace the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF). However, other than pledging that UKSPF will “reduce inequalities between communities”, it has offered few details on how funds will be allocated. A public consultation on UKSPF promised by May’s government in 2018 has yet to materialise.

The government’s continued silence on UKSPF is generating a growing sense of unease among councils, especially after the failure of successive governments to prioritise investment in regional development. Indeed, inequalities within the UK have been allowed to grow so much that the UK’s poorest region by EU standards (West Wales & the Valleys) has a GDP of 68 per cent of the average EU GDP, while the UK’s richest region (Inner London) has a GDP of 614 per cent of the EU average – an intra-national disparity that is unique in Europe. If the UK had remained a member of the EU, its number of ‘less developed’ regions in need of most structural funding support would have increased from two to five in 2021-27: South Yorkshire, Tees Valley & Durham and Lincolnshire joining Cornwall & Isles of Scilly and West Wales & the Valley. Ministers have not given guarantees that any region, whether ‘less developed’ or otherwise, will obtain the same amount of funding under UKSPF to which they would have been entitled under ESIF.


The government is reportedly contemplating changing the Treasury’s fiscal rules so public spending favours programmes that reduce regional inequalities as well as provide value for money, but this alone will not rebalance the economy. A shared prosperity fund like UKSPF has the potential to be the master key that unlocks inclusive growth throughout the country, particularly if it involves less bureaucracy than ESIF and aligns funding more effectively with the priorities of local people. 

In NLGN’s Community Commissioning report, we recommended that this funding should be devolved to communities directly to decide local priorities for the investment. By enabling community ownership of design and administration, the UK government would create an innovative domestic structural funding scheme that promotes inclusion in its process as well as its outcomes.

NLGN’s latest report, Cultivating Local Inclusive Growth: In Practice, highlights the range of policy levers and resources that councils can use to promote inclusive growth in their area. It demonstrates that, through collaboration with communities and cross-sector partners, councils are already doing sterling work to enhance economic and social inclusion. Their efforts could be further enhanced with a fund that learns lessons from ESIF’s successes and flaws: a UKSPF that is easier to access, designed and delivered by local communities, properly funded, and specifically targeted at promoting social and economic inclusion in regions that need it most. “Getting Brexit done” was meant to free up the government’s time to focus once more on pressing domestic priorities. “Getting inclusive growth done” should be at the top of any new to-do list.

Charlotte Morgan is senior researcher at the New Local Government Network.