Back in 2014, Nick Schoenhoff was the second runner-up in the Council of Ontario Universities’ annual Innovative Designs for Accessibility (IDeA) student competition for designing an interactive campus map that shows routes that are wheelchair-friendly. At the time, the 22-year-old Oakville resident, who was injured in a snowboarding accident when he was 13, had future plans to expand on that idea and develop an app that would have the capacity to add live updates, such as routes blocked by snow. Fast-forward to today: Nick has taken his idea and truly run with it.
We interviewed him to find out more about where life after the IDeA competition has taken him.
Describe your submission for the 2014 IDeA competition.
In my final year at McMaster University, I completed a placement in the department of Kinesiology where I was working on a map that rated all of the pedestrian pathways on campus based on their perceived level of accessibility. It was a simple colour coding system where: green meant there were high quality pathways that were completely accessible; yellow meant the route was technically accessible – for example a wheel chair could go over it – but there were concerns because perhaps the pathways were extremely degraded or the slope was steep; and red meant there were direct barriers to accessibility, such as curbs and stairs. I then submitted my work as part of a thesis paper and adapted that into the Campus Accessibility Mapping Project (CAMP) for the IDeA competition.
What inspired you to participate in the Innovative Designs for Accessibility (IDeA) student competition?
For me, I see the personal value to CAMP because I myself have a disability. It’s a resource that I could have used as a new student at McMaster. By giving this map to people, they can avoid the not-so-great areas and routes to classes that I, and most other people, have had to figure out ourselves.
What have you been doing since the 2014 IDeA competition?
The summer following the competition, I finished up two courses and graduated with my Honours Bachelor of Science. I was also simultaneously working on a proposal to expand the project. I received approval for building an app called Cartographr that used the core idea of CAMP, but rather than having it as a static map, it would be a dynamic Google Maps-based tool where people could report issues on the fly, for example, if they came across a blocked ramp.
I received funding from McMaster and put together a development team that basically worked solely on that for about a year and a half. We’re working with McMaster right now to try to take it further and fully implement it at the school and have them adopt it as a system.
How does it feel to have taken your idea from concept to fruition?
It’s been amazing. It was a very natural process. One thing led to the next. I never, at any point, thought this wasn’t going to go forward, or that it might stop, because the idea was just so well received. Whether it was from the IDeA competition or from within the McMaster community itself, it’s been great to see others realize the potential of this idea – which I know personally would have helped me as a student – and help push it forward.
Tell me more about the kind of response you’ve received?
One of the most common comments has been that it’s amazing that this hasn’t already been done. You know it’s a good idea when that is the response people give you. It took my own personal experience to see there was a gap here.
What are your next steps?
Right now, I have a full-time position working as a support analyst for a website product. I am still working on the app. I would love to see the app move on beyond McMaster and on to other schools and ultimately help more students. That is what I am working towards.
Why are initiatives like this so important – how does this competition benefit you as a student, and more broadly, the world we live in?
Increasingly, accessibility is becoming a more important and relevant issue in society. It’s something that previously was not that well recognized and as we’ve moved forward with for instance Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), people recognize that it’s something that’s going to have to be addressed.
So, to have students who are in an environment where they are encouraged to push their intellect and their ideas, and to get them thinking about these problems…it was so encouraging to see the group of people that were there when I was at the competition who were without a disability, recognizing that it’s a serious problem and working and innovating in this area.
Do you have any advice for future students who are interested in participating in the competition?
For me, it was never about winning or even placing in it, even though getting the recognition was nice. It was about being there with those groups of people and hearing their ideas and experiences from their own campuses. It was an amazing opportunity and experience.
This competition is about celebrating all of the ideas that are presented. It is an important area of work that needs to be done and I’m happy that this field is being recognized.
Nick Schoenhoff is a new professional in technology and application development. He was a top finalist in the 2014 Innovative Designs for Accessibility Competition, for his entry of an initiative called the Campus Accessibility Mapping Project – or CAMP. This idea was expanded in the following two years into the app Cartographr, which was released in January 2016, with ongoing work to expand the app’s reach to include other campuses in Canada and beyond. Nick has an honours Bachelor of Science degree from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.