Broadening Access

I spent the morning today at MTA headquarters, judging the “Accessibility” category of the NYC Transit Tech Lab competition, organized by the Partnership for NYC. Here is the view from the 20th floor of MTA HQ at Bowling Green:

Ostensibly, the theme of the day was accessibility in the sense of things that could improve the transit experience for people with disabilities and impairments of various kinds. This is, of course, a critical goal for every piece of public infrastructure, and is particularly important when it comes to transportation.

But what I quickly realized is that nearly every company that presented was not just increasing accessibility in that sense, but rather in a much broader sense — making the system more sensible, legible and usable for everyone.

Specifically, there was a single theme that came through from nearly every team: taking an invisible or analog signal, and making it digital. As simple as that.

I can’t link to the actual companies yet, as they haven’t been announced, but the kinds of signals that were being turned digital included: electrical signals emanating from infrastructure like elevators and escalators to monitor conditions & outages; voice announcements sent over the PA system; and contextual and wayfinding information from signs and other physical objects, such as buses and trains.

In each case, there is a valuable signal — valuable for people with disabilities yes, but really everyone — that is not at all captured digitally. And in each case, a system that manages to capture that signal and provide it in digital form. Once it’s digital, it can be used for anything: apps, alerts & notifications, analytics, compliance, etc. Once it’s digital, it’s accessible.

A major part of USV’s Thesis 3.0 is “Broadening Access” and this can come in many forms. What I realized today is that the simple act of capturing an analog or real-world signal and making it digital is a powerful act of broadening access in and of itself.

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Nick Grossman

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