Vinod Namboodiri, professor of community & population health in the College of Health, and professor of computer science & engineering in the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, has been awarded Phase 2 funding from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Convergence Accelerator to further develop a digital app for persons with disabilities to improve accessibility. MABLE (Mapping for Accessible Built Environments) is a tool that provides customized mapping and routing information for indoor spaces.
According to Namboodiri, an expert in indoor localization, his research explores “how to enable people with disabilities to visit and get around unfamiliar indoor and outdoor spaces where you don’t have any other mechanism of getting or finding information.”
When navigating through a complex indoor environment, individuals with sight will typically observe features such as signage to find their way. The challenge of navigation is magnified 3-4 or more times for people with disabilities, he said. Individuals with mobility impairments may have a hard time finding an accessible building entrance, and individuals with visual or cognitive impairments may struggle even more to find their way to and from their destination.
“The premise of the challenge which I’ve been trying to solve is, ‘How do you make it easier for everyone?’” he explained. “Not necessarily those who know the building well, but anyone in unfamiliar environments. Even those without disabilities often struggle.”
MABLE takes the guesswork out of indoor navigation by offering real-time preview and routing options, mimicking a satellite-based system such as Google Maps or Apple Maps for outdoor navigation. Indoor maps are enriched with accessibility information and are customizable based on the needs of the user. Studying the maps before the visit will allow for a more thorough understanding of the indoor environment and help ensure confidence and efficiency in the route.
This project is made possible through the NSF’s Convergence Accelerator, which addresses national-scale societal challenges through multidisciplinary research and innovation. MABLE lies within Track H: Enhancing Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities. Namboodiri’s previous Phase 1 award supported an intensive planning phase and development of the prototype.
Namboodiri’s team is large and diverse, bringing together partners in academia, non-profit, private industry, and healthcare; the COH believes they all have a role to play in promoting health equity. The five universities are Lehigh, Georgia Tech, Kansas State, Wichita State, and Florida Atlantic.
MABLE’s non-profit partners include Good Shepherd Rehabilitation, a nationally recognized provider of rehabilitation services based in the Lehigh Valley; Good Shepherd is also a partner of the COH. Another partner is the American Foundation for the Blind, a national organization which works to create a world of no limits for people who are blind or have low vision. Envision, which serves individuals who are blind or visually impaired through employment, outreach, rehabilitation, education and research is also involved.
The NSF’s Phase 2 award allows the team to bring MABLE to life over the next 3 years. An app and web-version have already been developed, and the team will spend the first one to two years developing prototypes. Lehigh’s Health, Science and Technology Building (HST), home to the College of Health, will be one of the first buildings to have MABLE. Starting at HST provides an ideal place to test the technology, as well as an opportunity for students to participate without having to travel. The team has planned additional prototypes in multiple sites around the country as well.
In the third year of the project, they will focus on more high-visibility locations. “We have a partnership also with the Smithsonian museums in D.C.,” said Namboodiri. “They eventually want to deploy this in their spaces as well.”
Sustainability and impact beyond the three-year term is a critical component of the NSF Convergence Accelerator, and commercialization is highly encouraged. The team is already embracing the entrepreneurial mindset, planning for how the research translates outside of the lab and into a sustainable business model.
“One of the things we plan to do is not just solve the research challenges,” Namboodiri said, “but see if we can get it all the way into the hands of users.”
As community is a cornerstone of all COH work, Namboodiri’s team followed a Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) approach in the development of MABLE, which emphasizes collaborating with the community as equal partners in the entire research process.
He explained, “It’s the people with disabilities who are telling us what are their challenges, what kinds of solutions might help them, and in what forms should you produce your solutions so we can use it?”
The timing for the project is right, Namboodiri said. For example, he is currently leading a COH research cluster focused on disability health equity, coinciding in focus with the Convergence Accelerator’s Track H.
Additionally, Lehigh’s new Strategic Plan, “Inspiring the Future Makers,” which launched in June 2023, calls for breaking boundaries across disciplines to translate theory into practice to address society’s most important challenges — exactly what MABLE aims to do to improve the lives of people with disabilities.
“MABLE reflects much of the College of Health’s mission,” said Beth Dolan, Dean of the College of Health. “We aim to improve health outcomes for marginalized populations, developing technologies in collaboration with those communities. When MABLE enters the marketplace it will significantly improve access, convenience, and dignity for people with a range of challenges.”