July 17, 2020

Indigenous-led company Appdigenous is creating accessible smart cities, one app at a time

A person stands with a phone in front of a door

By Evergreen

Leaders and changemakers coast-to-coast are quick to identify their communities’ most pressing issues. For Melissa Lunney, founder of Appdigenous Development Inc. and creator of the iOT app Doorable, and a Mi’kmaw woman from Fredericton, NB, that issue is accessibility, both in a traditional sense around physical spaces, but also virtual accessibility, especially for the Indigenous nations in Atlantic Canada. In New Brunswick, disability rates hover around 30-40 per cent of the population – a figure which increases for Indigenous communities, who have specific needs that are often overlooked.

Why Doorable?

Doorable is an app that bridges virtual and physical accessibility. Doorable enables users to wirelessly open accessible doors from an app on their phone, allowing them much more ease of use and time to pass through the door safely. It also goes one step further, helping users locate available accessible doors for entry to buildings.

The idea to create Doorable came to Lunney when she was enrolled in a mobile app making course. At this time, she observed a woman ahead of her who was using a wheelchair to enter a building. Lunney noted that the push to open door opened awkwardly on the same side as the button, and was difficult for the woman to re-position herself to safely enter in time before the door began to automatically close, risking her being hit by the doors. It was clear to Lunney that many older buildings were not originally planned and built with accessibility in mind. As Lunney points out, “The buttons are a fix on mistake. They made all these buildings and they aren’t truly accessible.” Lunney already knew she intended to make apps more accessible, and in doing more research with Indigenous and disabled communities, she decided that Doorable would be one of the first apps she would create.

Partnerships and collaboration the keys to success

After completing the mobile application course with Joint Economic Development Initiative (JEDI), she was accepted into their business accelerator program for Indigenous entrepreneurs. With their help and support she was able to access funding from the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation (NBIF). With the assistance of the Research and Productivity Council (RPC) prototypes were created and installed in the City of Fredericton. Collaborating with St. Mary’s First Nation and City of Fredericton, a finalist for the Infrastructure Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge in 2018, helped Lunney to succeed in creating Doorable. Lunney also worked closely with Blue Spurs to develop the first generation of the app. Ability New Brunswick and the Stan Cassidy Centre for Rehabilitation were other key partners, who helped Lunney ensure her initial research and survey of user needs honed in on their most pressing issues and assist in with the engineering needs of app creation. Lunney has seen amazing early impacts from the pilot project with the City of Fredericton, noting that there has been a growing awareness of the practical inaccessibility of push-to-open doors. She shared these experiences during the Community Solutions Network’s Collision Day in Moncton, NB.

The next steps for Doorable

There are some pivotal next steps for Lunney and Doorable. In the short term, Doorable needs to be refined and tested to create a more seamless user experience. Doorable also needs to partner with other municipalities to install hardware and roll out more prototyping. And as Lunney points out, in the era of COVID-19, contactless ways of opening doors take on even more urgency.

In addition to app creation, Lunney also works full-time as the Market Access Officer at JEDI developing and implementing business incubator and accelerator programs, helping other Indigenous entrepreneurs succeed. Lunney is also a young cancer survivor, and it is her personal healing journey that deeply informs the empathy, compassion and drive she exhibits in all her projects. She wants to help other cancer survivors succeed in business.

Her lived experience, and the lived experiences of other Indigenous peoples, are unique. Lunney points out that Indigenous people have different, valuable perspectives in creating smart cities and are social innovators at their core. They are “doing good for their communities and for their families and for the earth. And just by existing, they’re benefitting the planet, and I think we need to support them more.”

For these innovators, community needs are always top of mind.

Innovations for the future of smart cities

Lunney has an inspiring, incredible vision for the future of Doorable and Appdigenous. She wants to eventually train and lead a whole team of Indigenous coders and app-makers, and she sees this as a strong avenue to generate more employment Indigenous people with mobility issues. She has countless ideas to create a broad range of apps to realize her vision of accessible, smart cities – noting that right now “they don’t really have a lot of data on this stuff right now. I think if we had a precise picture of what our whole community actually looks like, then we can start solving challenges and problems that we didn’t know existed.”

According to Lunney, smart cities need to invest in and prioritize accessibility at the beginning of planning, and cities should be in competition with one another to create the most accessible city.  And through this shift, she hopes that Appdigenous can tackle each most pressing accessibility issue, from developing apps that display sidewalks cleared of snow and ice in real time to Google maps including the fastest, most accessible route in trip planning. For Lunney, merging technology with tradition can build more accessible, livable and prosperous cities for all.

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