The Ahead Journal


A Review of Inclusive Education
& Employment Practices ISSN 2009-8286

The Crowd4Access University of Galway footpath mapping initiative Improving accessibility through collaborating in Citizen Science

Dr Deirdre McHugh

University of Galway


About the Author

Ruth Keeley

About the Author

Dr Mike Hynes

University of Galway

About the Author

Dr Lorraine Tansey

About the Author

Brendan Smith

Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics


About the Author


The Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics’ Crowd4Access project engages the community to recognise and document accessibility barriers on footpaths in Irish towns and cities and share this information online. University of Galway’s Access Centre supports people to realise their educational potential, irrespective of their educational background, age, ability or personal health circumstances. We work together to help people of all ages and abilities navigate the urban built environment.

Through citizen science, we engage students and colleagues as partners in research to improve the accessibility of the University of Galway campus and the city beyond. As well as providing valuable route-planning information to all campus and city users, including over 18,000 students, this raises awareness about accessibility, builds community and encourages positive action. It provides students of data science and other relevant disciplines with a volunteering opportunity that is directly related to their studies and developing expertise. It utilises existing free, open-sourced software to gather and disseminate footpath accessibility data and directly informs the development of machine-learning technology for the benefit of society.

Applying Universal Design

Under the Disability Act 2005, public bodies, including educational institutions, are responsible for implementing the principles of universal design in their physical and digital environments, and products and services. The Act defines universal design as

The design and composition of an Environment so that it may be accessed, understood and used:

  1. To the greatest possible extent,
  2. In the most independent and natural manner possible,
  3. In the widest possible range of situations, and
  4. Without the need for adaptation, modification, assistive devices or specialised solutions, by any persons of any age or size or having any particular physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual ability or disability’ …’

Through its values-led strategy, the University of Galway is committed to adopting the principles of universal design in its working and learning environment. This commitment is reflected in the University’s Universal Design and Accessibility Policy and realised through a related action plan, high-level working group, and activities and initiatives across its vibrant community of students, and academic and professional colleagues. The Crowd4Access project supports universal design by identifying physical barriers that prevent some people from using footpaths, informing the public of these barriers and providing data that can be used to improve accessibility for everyone.

Improving Accessibility for all

Smart technologies have been a powerful instrument of change in the modern era and one that has transformed people’s way of life, allowing people with different types of disabilities to enjoy full independent lives. The hand-held web-based device has enabled us to travel more easily by providing informative maps of routes, amenities, and their locations. This is especially beneficial in an increasingly urbanised planet where we live in a highly populated, very busy, and often chaotic built environment.

The COVID lockdown was a reality check for our fast-moving lifestyle. The need to move away from a car-centric transport infrastructure gained momentum as a result of the severe restrictions imposed on personal movement, and urban dwellers began to think of more people-centric, 15-minute cities. But the lockdown also exposed the shortcomings in urban connectivity that undermined the quality of life for large sections of our population. It shone the spotlight, for instance, on the problems that so many have in navigating their neighbourhoods and the wider city. The cities of the last one hundred years have been built around the needs of motorised vehicle users and online travel maps reflect this. Whilst streets are mapped in minute detail, features such as tactile pavement, bollards and phone booths on footpaths, which can impede pedestrian movement, rarely appear.

The Citizen Science aspect

Crowd4Access seeks to address this deficiency through collaborative action on mapping the accessibility of footpaths of Irish towns and cities, and in making this information publicly available using free, open-source software. It represents a partnership between citizens and professional data science researchers to map footpath accessibility and to empower people with the information they need to influence policymakers and make changes to improve accessibility for all.

Crowd4Access recognises that all of us have or will have challenges when navigating the footpaths of an urban area. A wheelchair user and a parent pushing a buggy may need access ramps, a runner may need an even surface, whereas blind and vision-impaired people may need tactile pavement. In the summer of 2022, University of Galway staff and student volunteers met up for a series of online workshops and on-site mapping sessions to learn about how these different people use footpaths in different ways and how to capture and share footpath accessibility data.

A group of people in hi-vis jackets, staff and students of the University of Galway, preparing to map campus footpaths for accessibility.

Image Source: University of Galway, 2022

The mapping is done through the use of a street-level imagery app platform that captures images which are then used to enrich free, open, editable, global maps with the addition of relevant features onto footpaths, buildings and roadways. This is outlined in detail further below.

The Artificial Intelligence aspect

Initially, the data collected has to be identified and tagged onto the maps manually by volunteers, a necessary process but one that is very time-consuming. This is where machine learning comes in, specifically in the form of image analysis. Using the data collected to build up a critical mass, machine learning algorithms are trained to automatically identify the different elements of footpaths such as bollards, street trees and the different types of pedestrian crossings. For example, by providing the algorithm with multiple images of tactile paving, as in the image below, it will eventually learn to recognise this footpath feature without human input.

A series of four photographs of blistered tactile paving in an urban landscape

Image Source: Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics

The Crowd4Access Process

We used an app called Mapillary to record photo streams of campus footpaths and uploaded these to a platform called OpenStreetMap. Working together, it took the mapping group referred to earlier just over an hour to map around 80% of campus footpaths. The group was made up of professional and academic colleagues, including our University President, Professor Ciarán Ó hOgartaigh, and, crucially, some of our students and colleagues with disabilities.

Once uploaded to OpenStreetMap, the photo streams appear as an overlay to the map, allowing us to use them to add in footpaths and input details such as the surface type and width. Each of the green icons on the map represents a photograph and following the stream provides the exact location of the footpath, which can be added by drawing a line from one point to the next.

An image from the website displaying an image and image nodes from the Mapillary App.

Image Source: Mapillary overlay on OpenStreetMap, 2023

We can then add value to the footpath data by clicking on the line, and inputting details into the left-hand menu, for example, that the footpath highlighted here goes over a bridge. We can add details on who can use the footpath, in the example below, pedestrians, wheelchair users and cyclists. We can add points to the footpath to represent barriers, for example, a bollard or a raised kerb.

An image from displaying a footpath highlighted in red and information about the footpath to the left of the screen.

Image Source: OpenStreetMap, 2023

Engaging the Curriculum

Mapping campus footpaths was only the start. In early 2023, Dr Mike Hynes, part of the original mapping group, engaged his BSc in Applied Social Sciences students to map parts of the wider Galway City, in collaboration with Brendan Smith from Crowd4Access, Dr Deirdre McHugh from the University of Galway’s Access Centre, and Dr Lorraine Tansey and Ruth Keeley from the ALIVE Student Volunteering Programme.

The BSc in Applied Social Sciences programme curriculum was developed to address current and future societal skill shortages allowing students to choose a focussed study pathway that is most appropriate to their employability requirements or continuing education needs. The first and second years of the programme give students a solid foundation in what the Social Sciences are and how they can be more effective in society. Students get this perspective from several discipline/subject viewpoints and get a good foundation in research methods and what it is to be a social scientist in contemporary society. The degree programme is strongly focussed on the applied nature of the Social Sciences and equipping students with practical and innovative research skills, which makes the programme’s involvement with the Crowd4Access project highly relevant and beneficial for students. Research indicates that citizen science projects and participation have broader benefits beyond their scientific value, including benefits for environmental protection, policy and decision-making, community building and resilience, leisure and exercise, and volunteer learning, with different projects facilitating these general benefits to varying degrees. Feedback from Social Sciences students who participated in Crowd4Access sessions suggests a strong appreciation for the training and workshops, which significantly prepared them for their active involvement in mapping, and high levels of personal and group satisfaction with their overall involvement in what most deem an important and worthwhile extra-curricular activity. Such citizen science opportunities help build student profiles and confidence and fit the overall ethos of the Social Sciences programme at the University.

Student Volunteering

Alongside student engagement through the curriculum, University of Galway students were given the opportunity to volunteer with this project. Volunteering is outside the curriculum and is undertaken freely, without payment, in one’s own time. The dedicated student volunteering programme, ALIVE, is designed to connect students with their local communities through an online portal allowing students to reflect on their volunteering experiences. There are health and wellbeing benefits to students through volunteering and wider societal impacts. Students are often seeking the opportunity to participate in voluntary projects that give them new skills, allow them to meet new people, and make a positive impact. Student volunteering projects are aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)  under the National Development Plan 2021-2030, and Crowd4Access is a volunteer project that connects directly to SDG 11 Sustainable Cities and Communities.  Student volunteers shared their experience of the volunteer training, preparation and project delivery through our social media: Post One, Post Two, Post Three, Post Four.

Student Voice

In collaboration with the University of Galway's ALIVE volunteering platform, BSc Applied Social Science students had the unique opportunity to engage with Crowd4Access workshops to become citizen scientist volunteers. This month-long involvement, articulated through a series of workshops, allowed these students to translate their theoretical knowledge into practical, real-world applications. They explored various city areas, estates, and the University campus, capturing nuances of urban accessibility often overlooked. Through this process, students developed a heightened awareness of everyday challenges faced by individuals with limited mobility. The process involved an immersive learning experience where students, equipped with smartphone stabilisers and specialized mapping tools, navigated their local areas to collect data on urban accessibility. This hands-on approach allowed them to capture real-world complexities, such as narrow footpaths, inadequate curb cuts, and the absence of tactile indicators, that often escape conventional urban planning discussions.

Final year Social Science student and ALIVE Student Volunteering Programme Leadership Intern Ruth Keeley learned to view urban spaces through the lens of inclusivity, understanding how seemingly minor infrastructural elements can have significant impacts on daily mobility for those with disabilities. One of the key takeaways for Ruth and other students was the realisation of how this data, when applied to platforms like OpenStreetMap and Mapillary, could serve as a valuable resource for a wide array of users, from family members to the broader public, enhancing safe and convenient travel for all. The experience was transformative, equipping these social science students with practical skills and a deeper empathy towards creating more accessible environments for everyone. This initiative stands as a testament to the power of integrating academic study with community engagement and technological application to address critical societal challenges.


Engaging colleagues and students in citizen science to improve the accessibility of the built environment has multiple benefits for educational communities and the wider society, particularly for people with disabilities. As well as providing accurate, freely available information on footpath accessibility, this project raises awareness and prompts positive action around the barriers that some people experience in the urban environment. It additionally provides BSc in Applied Social Sciences students at the University of Galway with an opportunity to use the skills they are developing through the curriculum to the benefit of society and gain recognition for this through ALIVE student volunteering certification. It engages these students with the principles of universal design and empowers a new generation of citizen scientists to improve accessibility for all.


Disability Act 2005 Part 6,

National Development Plan 2021-2030 Project Ireland 2040,

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