An app developed by a Tampa Bay Wave company is making two City of Tampa office buildings and a riverfront park more accessible to the blind and visually impaired.
Tampa recently launched a new, 15-month pilot program with Lazarillo, a global firm operating remotely and from offices at Tampa Bay Wave, to offer assistance navigating the Tampa Municipal Office Building, Old City Hall and Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park.
“It’s similar in some ways to GPS, except that it’s inside,” says Brandon Campbell, Tampa’s smart mobility manager. “It’s primarily intended to help people with visual impairment navigate the indoor spaces.”
City officials regard the pilot as a “more forward-thinking” approach to the Americans with Disabilities Act, he explains.
Instead of waiting for someone to walk with them to a particular department, the Tampa resident Janet Bayer demonstrates the Lazarillo app inside Old City Hall.
visually impaired person can receive immediate help through the app.
“It works both on Android phones and Apple phones,” explains René Espinoza, Lazarillo’s founder and CEO.
The pilot project came about after the company approached the city, which previously had no formal program addressing the needs of the visually impaired visiting its buildings. The project went out to public bid and attracted two bids, Campbell says.
The pilot utilizes Bluetooth positioning beacons inside the buildings and the park.
The Lazarillo app, which is free to use, has some 250,000 users in 55 countries. More than 30,000 of them are in the United States.
“It’s like a friend that is talking to you about what is around you,” Espinoza explains.
Users can create favorite places and find restaurants or banks, for example.
“The app will announce the street crossing,” Espinoza explains. “It will not announce when to cross, for safety. It’s better for the user to decide that using their skills [taught by a mobility instructor].”
Lazarillo is supported financially through subscriptions from government, private institutions and businesses that want to enhance accessibility. Espinoza says they have projects in place in the U.S., Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile and Qatar, where the app helped increase accessibility in metro train stations and on the bus network for fans in the country for the recent World Cup.
Paul Martinez, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Florida says he is excited about the Lazarillo pilot project in Tampa.
“I think it’s wonderful. I’m all for as much independence as I can get,” says the 32-year-old Tampa man, who became blind at age 17 because of multiple sclerosis.
He hopes to use Lazarillo as a “daily part of my life.” In the future, he hopes he may be able to get directions to all the city parks.
A growing company
The idea for the company came about from a thesis Espinoza developed with a blind friend, Miguel Gonzalez, while in Santiago, Chile. Lazarillo derives its name from the Spanish book “Lazarillo de Tormes,” about a child who guided a blind man, he says.
Lazarillo joined the Wave’s TechDiversity program in 2019 after learning about the Wave from friends.
“Being connected with the Wave has helped Lazarillo to better understand the market and find new opportunities for growth and impact,” says Tampa Bay Wave Cohort Director Dr. Richard Munassi.
Munassi notes the growing importance of diversity and inclusion and the ADA “ensures the need for companies to incorporate accessibility solutions going forward.”
“Lazarillo is creating a community of businesses and people with disabilities, and providing a platform to help public institutions and businesses improve their accessibility and client experience,” he adds.
Lazarillo has grown to a staff of 29, with Gonzalez serving as UX accessibility leader.
“For now, all of our team is working remote. The pandemic forced us to do it, but the team liked it. So we’re keeping it remote now,” Espinoza says. “We are currently looking for local talent in Tampa Bay for business development and would have an office option.”
With increased online shopping as a result of COVID-19, the company recognized a need for the visually impaired to have better access to online businesses as well. As a result, Lazarillo has made its platform more robust.
Lazarillo is currently closing a $1 million seed round to expand.
For more information, go to Lazarillo, Tampa Bay Wave and National Federation of the Blind.