Spinal life

20 Nov 2020

Accessible tourism set for boost with Spinal Life Australia’s Accessible Australia

When Telstra Purple was asked to build an app for profit-for-purpose, Spinal Life Australia (Spinal Life), the development team immediately connected with the staff and customers of the organisation to better understand the daily challenges of those living with spinal cord damage.

Forming authentic relationships with customers is a common refrain for many businesses. For Spinal Life, a support and advocacy organisation with 60 years of history helping those living with spinal cord damage, being authentic is fundamental to its continued relevance.

"No matter how bad the weather is, no matter what the pandemic is like, in here you walk down the hall and overhear somebody talking about a very real situation happening at the other end of the phone," 

Mark Townend AM, CEO of Spinal Life Australia.

"Everyone has got one thing on their mind here; how are they going to support that person who has experienced a life-changing event and find different and innovative ways to help them. Authentic can be just a word, but here it's part of the culture."


App access

One of the organisation's latest innovations was to build a new app to support users with mobility limitations to explore the level of accessibility of venues and services across Australia. Hotels, restaurants, bathrooms, parks, beaches, and other places are listed in the app and available for review. Locations can be reviewed on the level of accessibility as well as overall experience. When users with similar mobility restrictions leave a review on the level of accessibility of different locations, this significantly increases the confidence users have in the reviews.

Townend explains that while many of us take for granted jumping in our car and being able to stop anywhere to access a restroom or place to eat, it's not like that for Spinal Life's community. Even with decades of accessibility standards being promoted, the reality still falls far too short.

"I thought this app would be out there already," Townend says. "There's an app for toilets, and there are small regional apps offering snapshots of what is available in Australia, but there's no single place so people with disability can “Know before they go” – to make their life easy. So, I thought we should make that happen."

Townend also saw examples where official information delivered through other review and information tools was often out of date or inaccurate. An accessible location may turn out to have a bathroom down a flight of stairs, or a step up to a venue. So, he wanted the app to include user input to ensure the information is up to date and accurate.

"Previously, if someone with mobility issues wanted to go out to dinner, there was a whole process to go through to make sure the venue was accessible for their needs, this included searching the internet, looking at reviews, checking comments, making a phone call, and asking someone on the other end of the line if the toilets are accessible. That person is probably very busy and says ‘Yeah, yeah, no worries’, but when they got to the restaurant, it's simply not accessible."

Townend points out that this isn't just for the benefit to the community, but to businesses that are doing the right thing and ensuring accessibility is well catered for in their establishments."

The tourism market for people with disabilities is approximately $10 billion in Australia," he says. "There's a huge opportunity here for people during the COVID recovery to assess their business for accessibility and to better promote it to secure a portion of this huge domestic market for accessible tourism."

Embedded development

Spinal Life partnered with Telstra Purple to build the app. As part of the development process the team embedded with Spinal Life to better understand the client and its community.

"The team immersed itself in the organisation. They were authentically involved from the start. They even spent time in wheelchairs to better understand how difficult it was. They couldn't even operate a wheelchair down the local footpath," he recalls.

"Anyone can build an app. But it really depends on the foundation underneath to ensure it will continue to grow in the future. Understanding the value in user experience testing, identifying what users will find easy and how to make things as simple as possible to use is at the core of human-centric design. Telstra Purple is a very professional team, always positive and energetic. They bring a wide variety of skills, not just to developing and programming, but sound methodology too."

The Accessible Australia app has been built as a web application, making it easy to use and widely accessible across PCs, tablets and mobile phones. It maintains the option of releasing native mobile apps through the use of the Apache Cordova hybrid mobile technology, while using ASP.NET Core technologies to underpin its APIs. The frontend is built with the modern, mature and high-performing React library.

The application infrastructure is built on Azure Cloud PaaS (Platform as a Service) resources, giving a fully managed, highly scalable and highly available system. The application’s structured data is stored using Azure SQL databases, which includes geo-replication, auditing and backup features, while unstructured data is stored on Azure Blob Storage for mass storage with high security at very low cost.

Across these Microsoft technologies and development platforms, the Accessible Australia app is built to ensure utmost scalability, availability, and flexibility of deployment, while using mature and stable foundations that ensure a comfortable and robust experience for the client and end-user alike.

Underpinning that easy-to-use experience is the data. Townend says the development process has put in place APIs to connect external data sources and dedicated data warehouses, ensuring that the service is updated automatically. User updates can include photos and comments, and that all needs to be stored for efficient access for all users.

The app also incorporates updates and requests from restaurants or other services when improvements have been made to their venues if they were previously flagged as having poor accessibility.

"We hope it will work both ways," says Townend. "While the law is there, accessibility doesn't always happen on the ground. People just don't realise the difficulties. But if they do make changes and let us know, it can only be a good thing for their business and their patrons." 

Authentic outcomes

With the launch of the app in October, Townend is excited to think about the stories they will hear back from the community about how it has helped people enjoy their travels across Australia more easily. But he's also proud of having taken the steps to build a national app that he feels will be ready to perform a great service over the long-term.

"I'm very confident it is a good quality product," he says. "People have to remember that you need to look for value. By value I mean the exchange of design quality for investment. I think Telstra Purple has delivered us a high value product that will appeal to anyone with a mobility issue as well as the broader business community."

Townend feels that too many organisations can look for shortcuts to get a basic result. But delivering something meaningful for customers and the wider community takes a deeper level of planning, co-design and development.

"Co-design with users has been at the core of this project, it is imperative to engage users from the start to ensure we were building something our customer really needs and not something we thought they needed. People need to have a say. Don't take shortcuts if you want to make something that is valuable and relevant to people."

"In the end, it's very simple: co-design to make life easier for people with accessibility issues. Help them to experience things that you and I get to experience without thinking about it."