TAMPA — Apps that use Global Positioning System, or GPS, to provide directions are pretty good at finding destinations like office buildings, but are not much use once you enter.
That’s not a problem in most offices, which have directories in the lobby and signs on doors and corridor walls. But it is a problem for the visually impaired who often have no way to navigate buildings without help.
That was what inspired Tampa startup Lazarillo to spend five years enhancing 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 upcoming year.
Raquel Pancho, Tampa’s Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator, said she’s seen visually impaired students at the University of South Florida who had to learn a path of travel to a classroom. But the unknown of going to new places can be a tremendous barrier, she said. Florida has more than 500,000 visually impaired residents, according to the National Federation of the Blind.
“This Lazarillo app will provide this incredible independence, so a person can actually go solo if they wanted to,” Pancho said.
Once inside a building, the app communicates with wall-mounted Bluetooth beacons that tell the software the exact location of the user. In multistory buildings like Old City Hall, it can provide different information on every level, including which departments and offices are on each floor and the location of bathrooms, elevators and exits.
Lazarillo Chief Executive Officer René Espinoza said the app is free to download and works on both iPhone and Android smartphones. He said it was inspiring for a small startup to have the opportunity to partner with the city.
The company’s app is already used by more than 250,000 people, according to the company’s website, and has worked with several organizations to configure it to provide additional navigation options at sites including sectors of Detroit and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. The company’s 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 among more than 434 startups that have received support through Tampa Bay Wave, the city’s technology incubator and accelerator known for its cohorts and training programs.
“We are focused on inclusivity in our city,” said Tampa Mayor Jane Castor at a news conference Wednesday. “To have this Lazarillo app that is invented right here as an innovation in a hub like Tampa Bay Wave is really exciting.”
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Local residents with disabilities helped the city to beta test the app at city locations. Among the features they requested was information about accessibility for the disabled such as wheelchair ramps.
One of the testers was Carrollwood resident Janet Beyer, who began to lose her vision about 10 years ago.
Beyer, who uses a cane to walk, said she’s tried five different smartphone navigation apps designed for the visually impaired. They all had one thing in common: “Once you get to the address, it stops there. It doesn’t recognize anything inside,” she said. “That’s what’s unique about Lazarillo.”
One of the tests she did was at Julian B. Lane Park, where the app was able to inform her of the location of the dog park, the water, the trash cans and shelters from the sun.
She would love to see the service expanded to more destinations like malls so her phone can direct her to Macy’s.
“This is what we’re looking for,” she said. “We don’t want to be a burden to our families and friends. We want to be independent and this application is giving us that.”