Tommy Edison, also known as the Blind Film Critic is an extremely popular personality on YouTube and in his videos he shares his experiences of day-to-day life. Almost all of his videos are funny and witty, but they also take you through a day in a blind person’s life – talking of things you’d never know – from how the blind draw to how they choose clothes. One particular video also speaks of how the visually impaired use their iPhone (using accessibility).
Today on OK, Intrnt we speak to Line Dybdahl, cofounder of Be My Eyes, an iPhone app that enables blind people to get help from a community of volunteers in day-to-day tasks like identifying a packaged food item or selecting the right menu on a washing machine. Thanks to their efforts, almost 200,000 volunteers are helping a community of over 17,000 blind users in carrying out simple tasks.
What is Be My Eyes?
Be My Eyes is an iPhone app for visually impaired people to receive virtual assistance for everyday challenges. The idea is that a visually impaired person can have a profile on the app and they can call out to a community that has signed up to be micro-volunteers. Many people like to volunteer but they don’t have the time to be at a specific place at a specific time to do some volunteer work. In this way, they can volunteer whenever they have time or they’re available. The great thing is that the blind person would always know that whenever they call and someone picks up, it’s because the person has the time and willingness to do so. It’s even great for volunteers because it enables them to help other people at their convenience. We have a 1:17 ratio of visually impaired users to volunteers, which is amazing. If I’m visually impaired and I need to check if my carton of milk has expired, sometimes it’s very difficult to find it on the packaging. So I can share it on my phone and ask someone who’s online.
How did you begin?
Be my eyes is about 3 years old. We met at a startup weekend where we met Hans Jørgen Wiberg who is the original founder ideamaker of the app. He has a condition with his eyes because of which he knows that one day he will go blind. He’s the kind of person who wants to be independent. He thought, ‘What can make my everyday life as a blind person easier and more independent?’
He had an iPhone with FaceTime so he wondered why not use FaceTime to help blind people? Instead of calling a friend all the time, call a community instead – a community that is willing to help blind people. He pitched this idea at the startup weekend. We were about 8 people who found the idea very interesting and we created a team. 5 out of the 8 in the team were visually impaired, myself included. It’s been three years since then and we’ve put in a lot of efforts to gather funds to make the app. We have all volunteered our time to make the app happen. Velux Foundation financed it with 1.8 million Danish kroner, which helped us kick off the project, test it in the Danish market and subsequently launch it in the international market.
What was the initial process of getting people onboard so that the app was useful and functional?
We have thought about this a lot – as to what kind of ratio should there be, how many people should be online etc. So when we started, we tried to get as much attention as possible and got people to sign up. We got a lot of viral traffic because of people sharing it on different social media. Then we had a few interviews with people like CBS News and then it just went wild. Luckily, we had a lot of volunteers from the word go. In the initial days we had a lot of queries asking “am I really ON the app? Because I haven’t gotten any requests as yet!” But people have really been patient and that’s very amazing.
Hans is the regional chairman in the Danish Blind Society and it has been a great advantage for us to have an ‘inside man’! This helped us create awareness about the app in the blind community. He’s also a great person to make new connections in the international community because people respect him as a blind person trying to bring about a change for other blind people all around the world.
Are you working on any additional functionality that you wish to introduce?
The code is open source and is up on GitHub. So a lot of people can get the code, contribute to it and submit improved versions. It could also be used for people with other impairments. The app is currently only on iPhone and we know we should be up on Android. It should happen very soon.
What sort of difficulties did you face in the beginning?
We had to build the technology from the scratch. We had to sort out a few issues like queuing people for request calls and making the app accessibility friendly. Translating it to different languages has not been that difficult because we use a tool called Crowdin which is a website where you can crowdsource translation. We had Danish and English in the beginning. We now have access to upwards of 40 languages.
What sort of requests generally come in on the app?
That’s a good question but I think we don’t have those kind of statistics. However, we have a few stories from people. Our “sales story” is the one of the milk carton. We have also had stories like people getting help with operating washing machines. We had one great story where a lady regularly used a vending machine to get food at work. She used to ask people to help her out to select the kind of food every day. Now she started taking the app to the machine and started getting random people to help her choose her meal. These are the kind of stories that we hear, usually!
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As part of OK, Intrnt’s efforts to connect people, we asked Line if she would like to speak to some of our readers directly and she happily agreed! Write to us and we will get back to you and tell you how you can reach her!
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