How Crowdsourcing is Helping Blind People to See

Published Sep-07-15

An innovative app allows sighted people to help those who are visually impaired via video calls through their iPhones.

Be My Eyes, Denmark

The Story:

How Crowdsourcing is Helping Blind People to See The crowd is helping to make life easier for visually impaired people through a neat non-profit app called Be My Eyes. The software program pairs people who have difficulty seeing with helpers who could be miles away. They provide assistance with a range of everyday challenges, such as reading the sell-by date on a carton of milk, studying labels on a food tin, identifying people in a photograph or navigating unfamiliar surroundings.

The Genesis of a Great Idea

The idea was the brainchild of Hans Jørgen Wiberg, who is visually impaired himself. Through his work at the Danish Blind Society, he realized that although many blind people can lead independent lives, they sometimes need help with little everyday chores.

In visiting blind people in their homes and advising them on cooking, he often heard them say: "If I only had a pair of eyes once or twice a day, I could really do a whole lot more on my own". As Hans pointed on in a TED talk in 2013, blind people can and do ask neighbours, friends and family for help once in a while, but they can't do this all the time. This is what got him thinking about a way of providing blind people with 'a pair of eyes' every now and then.

He presented the idea at a start-up event in Denmark in 2012 and won the prize for "the most innovative idea". Within a few days of launch in January 2015, more than 100,000 volunteers had signed up to provide help to nearly 8,000 sight-impaired people. At the time of writing this article in August 2015, 288, 887 sighted volunteers had helped 22,279 blind people with 94,815 tasks.

How does it Work?

The app lets anybody with sight issues request the help of a sighted volunteer. Several are notified by the system, and if no one responds, the request is passed on to other helpers until a match is found. Once this happens, live video and audio connections are established, allowing the volunteer to offer assistance. All the blind person has to do is point their phone at the object or objects in question.

As with anything that is video based, there is always the potential for abuse and misuse. But there is a system in place for all users to report this, should something happen.

The Be My Eyes service is completely free, and to encourage further participation, volunteers are rewarded with points.

"I like to call it micro-volunteering," said Hans during his TED talk in Copenhagen. "You can volunteer from everywhere - whenever you have a break from work, standing in line at the supermarket or even lying on your couch at home."

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