How an app is making Chicago accessible for the handicapped

by Kate Rosow Chrisman
November 18, 2014

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Mohammed Ouyoun works to make Chicago more accessible for those in a wheelchair 

Class projects don’t normally transform into a life-changing app, but that’s exactly what happened with the team behind Roll with Me.

The idea behind Roll with Me is simple: make it easy for people in wheelchairs, moms with strollers or tourists with suitcases to navigate public transportation in Chicago. The genesis for the app came from Mohammed Ouyoun, himself in a wheelchair, who had trouble navigating the CTA from class to home on a late study night. After asking the best way to get home, he was directed to a station that didn’t have a working elevator. It meant added time and hassle to get home, especially since he had caught the last train out. The whole experience left him frustrated and he thought, “Travelling shouldn’t be this difficult,” said Ouyoun.

From Frustration to App

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That’s when Jack Mallers (pictured left), a programmer on the project entered the scene. When talking to Ouyoun the next day, they thought this could make a great app. The class had already been assigned to work on a civic data project with the city of Chicago, which is encouraging collaboration and transparency with it’s data. A team of five students at Starter School spent the next few weeks working on the project while balancing their other school obligations.

The app plans trips for users. It takes the route Google would recommend but cuts out stations that aren’t accessible for those in a wheelchair. Stations with broken elevators or other outages are pulled from public data and not recommended to users. It provides a smoother transit option to the disabled or others needing elevators. It also cuts out the hassle of learning about an elevator outage only after you’ve arrived or needing to call the CTA each time you take public transportation.    

The free service was released to the public last week.   

The school project has yet to turn into a full-fledged company, but they’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback. For now, Ouyoun is working with Smart Chicago Collaborative, an organization that seeks to improve the lives of Chicagoans through technology. With their help, Ouyoun is working to improve the app. The app “works out perfectly with their mission statement,” said Ouyoun.

Focus on Chicago

Right now the app only works for Chicago, but there’s potential to expand to other cities. Still, Ouyoun wants to focus on getting the app right for his town before looking elsewhere.  He was recently in a meeting with a group of disabled people who have all struggled with this same issue and he’s happy to be making a difference in their lives.

In the future, Ouyoun sees the potential to partner with other transportation companies, such as accessible vehicles. This would help the disabled with longer trips, those above a few miles, that aren’t accessible by the CTA. 

Young Talent

The five-person team behind the project is young: Ouyoun is just 21 and Mallers is 20.  The experience has been eye-opening to the new developers.  This was the “first app I’ve built.  I realized I can actually make a difference…. [The app] helps someone today, and there are people using it whose lives are benefiting from it,” said Mallers.

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