TAMPA — Apps that provide directions using the Global Positioning System, or GPS, are great for finding destinations like office buildings, but not much use once you’re inside.
This is not a problem in most offices, they have directories in the lobby and signs on the doors and hallway walls. But it’s a problem for the visually impaired, who often can’t navigate buildings without assistance.
That’s what inspired Lazarillo, a Tampa startup, to spend five years improving a GPS app that provides audible navigation cues for the blind and visually impaired.
Now, through a partnership with the City of Tampa, the app can be used to navigate Old City Hall, the Tampa Municipal Office Building and Julian B. Lane Park. The city plans to expand the service to more locations in the coming year.
Raquel Pancho, Tampa’s ADA coordinator, said she’s seen visually impaired students at USF who have to learn a way to the classroom. But the unknown of going to a new place can be a huge hurdle, she said. According to the National Federation of the Blind, Florida has more than 500,000 visually impaired residents.
“This Lazarillo app will provide this incredible independence, so that if a person wants to, they can actually go it alone,” Pancho said.
Once inside the building, the app communicates with wall-mounted Bluetooth beacons that tell the software the user’s exact location. In a multi-story building like the Old Town Hall, it can provide different information on each floor, including which departments and offices are on each floor, and where bathrooms, elevators, and exits are located.
Lazarillo CEO René Espinoza said the app is free to download and is available for iPhone and Android smartphones. For a small start-up, the opportunity to work with the city was encouraging, he said.
According to the company, the company’s app has been used by more than 250,000 people website, and worked with several organizations to configure it to provide additional navigation options at sites including Detroit and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. The company name is Spanish slang for “guide dog” in some Latin American countries.
Espinoza founded the company in Chile but moved to Tampa in 2019.It is one of more than 434 supported startups tampa bay surfthe city’s technology incubator and accelerator, known for its cohort and training programs.
“We’re focused on inclusivity in our city,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said at a news conference Wednesday. “Having this Lazarillo app invented here as an innovation for a hub like Tampa Bay Wave is really exciting.”
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Local residents with disabilities helped the city beta test the app at city locations. The features they requested included information about accessibility for people with disabilities, such as wheelchair ramps.
One of the testers was Carrollwood resident Janet Byer, who began losing her vision about 10 years ago.
Bayer, who walks with a cane, said she has tried five different smartphone navigation apps designed for the visually impaired. They all have one thing in common: “Once you get to the address, it just sits there. It doesn’t recognize anything inside,” she said. “That’s what makes Lazarillo unique.”
One of the tests she did was at Julian B. Lane Park, where the app informed her of the dog park’s location, water, trash cans and shade.
She’d like to see the service expand to more destinations, such as malls, so her phone can direct her to Macy’s.
“That’s what we’re looking for,” she said. “We don’t want to be a burden to our family and friends. We want independence, and this app gives us that.”