Over on Twitter, I heard about a new app for Autistic people. Aubin is in development currently, and is a journey planner-but with a difference. To find out more, I spoke to the team behind the app’s development.
First of all, how did the idea for the app to improve travelling for autistic people come about?
We work with a number of railway companies and were approached by a client who asked whether we could come up with a concept for an accessibility app. We discussed several ideas and settled on the concept of a journey planner app for autistic children which would calculate a journey based on preference and needs, rather than the fastest route. The client project was shelved, but we felt that we had an idea that could really help people and built on this. This has evolved to the current vision of an app that is both a journey planner and travel companion for autistic users. Last year (2017), a couple of us attended the Autism Show to speak with key figures in the Autistic community (such as Carol Povey from NAS) and the general public to find out whether Autistic people would find this app useful, and if so what would they like to see included. We had very positive feedback and set about researching ways we could raise the funding necessary to make the app happen.
How did you start to develop this as an app?
Initially, as we had no client to fund the project, our developers did some feasibility studies to provide ‘proof of concept’ to show that we could build a journey planner which would allow the user to avoid individual stress factors. Whilst we were initially looking at ways to fund this we caught the attention of the London Midland Labs project, which was an accelerator program run by London Midland. We were invited to participate in the 2017 Innovation Labs programme and at the end, we were awarded some seed funding which enabled us to build the initial concept demonstrator of the app.
In terms of the development, where is the app at currently?
After we received seed funding for the initial prototype of the app from LM Labs, we considered different funding routes and decided to enter the journey planner app into the Rail Safety Standards Board (RSSB) Rail Accessibility Competition. The aim of the competition was to find innovative solutions to challenges faced by passengers with disabilities on the railways, and especially for those with less visible impairments, such as autism. Out of hundreds of applications, we were picked along with six other winners to receive RSSB funding for our project. This funding will allow us to develop a fully working prototype over the next few months. We can’t put every features we would like to in the first version, so we created an initial user testing survey to help us ascertain which features are likely to be most useful so that we can build these in from the ground up.
How are members of the autistic community involved with the development?
We believe that we can’t build an app for autistic users without involving the autistic community from the beginning and have been busy building contacts. We have already held a small number of user focus groups with Mouth That Roars, a small film workshop in Hackney who work with young people in the borough, many of who are on the spectrum. We also held a user focus session with the National Autistic Society Young Ambassador group late last year. We are currently receiving a lot of help and support from Kat Humble at Autistic UK who is helping us to set up a joint forum to discuss the app and allow people to comment on aspects of the app as it develops to help us ensure that we are getting it right.
Word is starting to spread via social media and we are inviting people to sign up for user focus groups and testing as the project develops. However, the more input we get the better, so we encourage everyone to get involved!
Are any of the team behind this app on the spectrum?
No, we don’t have anyone on the development team who is autistic. However, our Product Manager, Corinna, has a teenage son who is on the spectrum who has been closely involved.
What sort of features can we expect to be included in the app?
Firstly, the Journey Planner is a first-of-its-kind, which will allow users to avoid line/stations, tunnels/crowds, step-free accessible routes etc that make them feel stressed or uncomfortable. No other journey planner can do this. In addition, we are planning to include other tools to help deal with disruption and assist with communication if the user encounters problems during their journey. These will include disruption notices, with advice on how to continue the journey; a feature which will quickly calculate your journey to your home location should the user be unable to continue the journey for any reason. We will be including a customisable autism alert card to help explain to other passengers and rail staff what the user is emotionally experiencing, which will allow users to include any personal difficulties; a chat function for non-verbal communication to allow the user to communicate to a parent/carer, staff or fellow travellers who they are feeling and whether they need to get off the train for example; a quick call button to allow users to contact a nominated emergency contact from the app. We would also like to include a feature to allow users to contact railway staff if they need assistance.
We welcome ideas from the autistic community for features we could put in the app – we won’t necessarily be able to include them all, but we will keep anything technically feasible in mind!
When can we expect it to be released?
We plan to have a beta testing version of the app ready for a small group of users (50-100) in the autumn and hope to have the app available to the public in 2019.