Podcast: Making Our Cities Smarter & More Accessible
Future of Work Podcast, Episode 14
In this episode, Megan Lawrence and Laura Ruby discuss how and why Microsoft is partnering with the Smart Cities for All initiative to eliminate the digital divide for persons with disabilities in cities around the world.
Megan Lawrence is Microsoft's Accessibility Technology Evangelist. She builds trusted relationships with customers, NGOs, and Assistive Technology partners to further Microsoft’s mission of empowering every person and organization to achieve more through the lens of inclusion. Laura Ruby is Microsoft's Director of Worldwide Accessibility Public Policy & Standards. Prior to her role at Microsoft, she worked at AT&T as a member of the global corporate accessibility team.
This podcast is developed in partnership with Workology.com as part of PEAT's Future of Work series, which works to start conversations around how emerging workplace technology trends are impacting people with disabilities.
Introduction: [00:00:00] Welcome to the workology podcast a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller Merrill founder of workology dot com as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends tools and case studies for the business leader H.R. and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now here's Jessica with this episode of workology
Jessica: [00:00:26] Accessibility isn't just limited to our workplaces. It's about our communities and places ourselves our friends and our families call home especially in urban areas. These urban areas are commonly referred to as smart cities but it's more than that. This podcast is sponsored by clearcompany and is created in partnership with our friends at the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology or PEAT. This podcast is part of their future of work series. A smart city is an urban area that uses different types of electronic data collection sensors to supply information which is used to manage assets and resources efficiently. This includes data collected from citizens devices and assets that is processed and analyzed to monitor and manage traffic in transportation systems power plants water supply networks waste management law enforcement information systems schools libraries hospitals and other community services. A 2016 survey from G3 I CTE found that 60 percent of accessibility experts believed that today's smart cities are failing persons with disabilities. So for today's podcast we're going to talk about challenges facing Smart Cities success stories and how H.R. can help us leaders and business professionals. Today I'm joined by Megan Lawrence and Laura Ruby Megan is an accessibility technology evangelist at Microsoft. Megan builds trusted relationships with customers and geos and assisted technology partners to further Microsoft's mission of empowering every person and organization to achieve more. Through the lens of inclusion also on the podcast is Laura Ruby. She is the director of worldwide accessibility public policy and standards also with Microsoft. Prior to her role at Microsoft she worked at AT&T as a member of the global corporate accessibility team. Megan and Laura welcome to the workology podcast.
Megan: [00:02:31] It's lovely to be here. Thank you for having us.
Jessica: [00:02:33] Let's start with Megan first. Tell us a little bit about your background.
Megan: [00:02:37] Yes. So I have a PhD in geography where I studied blind and low vision navigation geospatial tool development and really helping bring the voice of people with disabilities to the table during the development of products and services. I joined Microsoft about three years ago and I am the senior accessibility evangelist now working for our chief accessibility officer Jenny Lee Flurry. And I have really the amazing job of being able to work deeply with our customers and the disability community to help begin to understand how we can partner to build cultures of inclusion that really help make the world a more inclusive place.
Megan: [00:03:15] Awesome well thanks for taking the time to join us here. I'm going to flip it over to Laura.
Laura: [00:03:21] Tell us about your background. Hi I'm Laura Ruby and I'm the director of worldwide accessibility policy and standards at Microsoft and I've been with Microsoft for 19 years. All of those years working on accessibility and technology center and mostly in the in the policy space. And before that I was with AT&T Wireless also working on accessible technology and policy. So I had a really long rich career working in this space and I'm just really pleased to be here today with you.
Jessica: [00:03:59] Awesome well thank you so much both of you for for joining us. Let's talk a little bit about the work that you guys are doing with smart cities. How did it start.
Laura: [00:04:07] Well we think Microsoft has worked with cities for a long time very closely and we have in fact a program that's called City Next. And the goal of that program is to help cities all around the world become more competitive sustainable prosperous and we work with our our Microsoft partners and the cities to help make sure that they can engage their citizens that they can empower their their city employees that they can use technology to optimize their operations and their structure. And we really want to help them use technology to transform so that cities are healthier educated safer. And all these things. So as we've been doing that work people like Megan and I we've been talking with our our city customers about accessibility and in these discussions we were finding that a lot of them had smart city plans and they were working on you know how how are we going to leave paper behind and become more digital with these plans and programs and then they also had disability services agencies or groups. But we notice that the two are not connected and we were talking with our one of our our longtime partners G3 I C T which is the Global Initiative for Inclusive information and communication technologies. It's a long name but it's an organization that was launched out of the UN back in 2006 with a mission to help governments and citizens all over the world do a better job of leveraging technology to increase the rights of people with disabilities so they've been traveling all over the world. Also talking to cities and they said hey we're finding the same thing. These cities are working on becoming digital and accessibility in serving people with disabilities is missing in these plans. This is a big problem. And we said Yeah. That is a big problem. Citizens are going to get left behind. So I c t joined with another NGO World enabled and they came up with this plan and they came to Microsoft they said hey we want to help solve this problem. Are you interested in supporting us in solving this problem. And we said yes we are we're on board. So they created this initiative called Smart Cities for all and the focus is to eliminate the digital divide for persons with disabilities in smart cities around the world. And that's that's how we got involved.
Jessica: [00:06:57] Tell me about G 3 i c T's toolkit and resources they provide urban planners in cities who are interested in making their cities more inclusive and accessible. I know that Microsoft was involved in developing this.
Laura: [00:07:10] Sure. So one of the things that when when we were working with G3 ICT. On the approach for cities. We realized that we collectively had a lot of information and awareness and experience working on accessibility and with people disabilities and technology but that most people don't. So the initiative came up with this idea of creating a toolkit that would support cities and cities including government managers the policymakers the ice t professionals disability advocates in the community that we're also trying to support these efforts. The procurement officials that buy the technology the technology suppliers like us and even the developers who work for the cities and create applications we decided we needed to do something to help all of these people become more knowledgeable about what it would mean to create an accessible city. So the tools were created to identify and help solve for some priority challenges. And the initiative did a survey and they reached out to experts and they asked these experts you know what do you see as being the challenges and where are the biggest gaps. So the tools were created to address these challenges and there is a guide to implementing standards accessibility standards because one of the things that these can do is adopt an accessibility standard and say to their developers and their suppliers Hey when we buy technology from you or you develop technology for us or when we develop technology for ourselves we're going to make sure that we do our best to meet these technology standards for accessibility so that the technology is accessible. And then there's a guide to help a city put a policy in place around buying and procuring information technology so that it's accessible so policymaker How can you create a policy for everyone in your city that buys technology that that tells them whenever you buy technology you need to ask yourself these things to make sure that what you're buying can be used by all citizens. And then there are some other tools some guides to help a city. How do you make the business case to your city that all of these things need to happen. How would you if you decided you wanted to be a leader for your city convince others in your cities that this isn't a problem that needs to be solved and that technology can help.
Jessica: [00:09:59] One of the first smart cities right now is Chicago. Can you talk to me about that project where you guys are and maybe what you've learned from it.
Megan: [00:10:07] Yeah absolutely. This is Megan. You want to start off by just giving a deep thank you to the city leaders in Chicago for being the pilot and going through the inclusive smart city maturity model with us. I think it really was a great example of deep partnership when we have city leaders NGOs and large companies coming together to really understand what it means to provide great guidance on creating inclusive cities and especially this thing called an inclusive smart city right. So we got to spend two days on the ground with a variety of city employees that ranged from the mayor's office the mayor's office some people with disabilities libraries their legal staff and IP. And in my mind there were a couple of really big takeaways for me. One it was an incredible opportunity for a variety of city employees to come together and have a really rich conversation about accessibility and inclusion. I think we realized that everybody has best practices and we have a lot to learn from each other. So simply creating a face in which people could come together and begin to have this conversation I think was a real win for the city.
Megan: [00:11:19] Second of all it's incredible to see the strong partnership that the mayor's office on disability has with the CIO of the city of Chicago. I think that that is really one of those you know what I would call part of the secret sauce to creating a great include great inclusion within a city and that has paved the path for prioritizing accessibility across the digital environment on in Chicago. And third have organization whether you're a city whether you're a company whether you're a non-profit. We have those moments of brilliance. We have those programs those processes that really help further accessibility and inclusion and places to mature. And I think that that's part of what we really want to shine a light on which is how do we begin to make that data driven investment strategy by understanding what we do really well and those places that we have to grow. So one of the things that again that I really like about the the inclusive smart city maturity model is being able to bring up that conversation and start to shed light on how to move forward.
Jessica: [00:12:29] You guys launched this for Smart City in Chicago during the polar vortex. How did the frigid weather conditions impact accessibility and then the data that you guys collected.
Megan: [00:12:41] Well I'm incredibly proud to say that I was in negative 21 degrees but definitely the cold weather I have personally ever experience. So I feel like that some sort of badge of honor for me. But you know what. It was incredible. The city of Chicago really lived up to its reputation as being the city that always work because everybody came to the meetings across those two days. They were dedicated. They were engaged just absolutely huge kudos to show how dedicated the city of Chicago is to keeping not only the city running but beginning to think about how they push the envelope and make it even better.
Jessica: [00:13:21] I love that they were still doing it. Still taking part hunkered down attending meetings and participating because the city doesn't stop when it's negative 21 degrees.
Megan: [00:13:33] It really doesn't. And they were all laughing and saying oh this is nothing it's not that bad. Which certainly gave us a chuckle.
Jessica: [00:13:40] Talk to me about some of the barriers to smart city accessibility if you will.
Laura: [00:13:46] This is Laura I've mentioned before that G3 ICT did a survey to try and collect information about what needed to be done and the survey came back you know confirming that there is a lot of work to be done to eliminate barriers and improve access so there are so many things when cities don't you know incorporate accessible technology. There are consequences across the board for people with disabilities. When you think about it being able to access community services being able to access transportation being able to secure employment being able to participate in civic activities to vote to receive services and then even public safety emergency services and the courts and justice system so there can be barriers in all of those places where technology can help them. And then there's a different kind of barrier. There's there's also a lack of awareness and a lack of you know policies and trained professionals in the area of accessible technology so we need to address the barriers in terms of you know the city and the services but also cities need help learning more about accessibility and about accessible technology so that they can bring their A game and help their citizens talk to me about some of the.
Jessica: [00:15:29] The work with smart cities that is happening outside of the U.S. because this isn't just a U.S. specific program. What other cities or countries are leading the way.
Laura: [00:15:38] There are a lot of great things happening that a lot of places. And you know a lot of cities have some great practices and are doing really innovative things. But there's definitely room for improvement when it comes to digital inclusion. So you know as we mentioned Chicago in the US is doing some cool things with their city wide 3 1 1 system for citizen engagement and New York City has has been integrating accessibility into their four months of technology but you're asking me outside the US. So like for instance Rio de Janeiro they've taken some steps to make sure that all of the content they're generating for the public that that's accessible so making documents accessible making sure that information that they send out to people via email but that's accessible and even creating a guide for city employees about how to be inclusive in social media. So sometimes we think about you know big technology solutions and we forget that there are small things that cities can do. London has a huge transportation agency and they have an open data policy which requires developers to get some accessibility training so then their data is made available which is really valuable to developers who want to create new apps and products. So there are things like this happening all over the world and you know as cities become more aware that this is an area that they need to focus on. Well you know we're going to see great stuff yeah.
Megan: [00:17:15] Laura I want to chime in with that because you couldn't be more correct that we need to continue to drive awareness and education about what it really means to build accessibility solutions. And so I just want to give some information about the University of Illinois which now has an online program in which people can take a course to help them begin to understand exactly what how to build accessibility programs and applications. It's called The Information Accessibility design and policy certificate. Little bit of a long name but a great resource. If you're thinking about learning more about accessibility and technology.
Jessica: [00:17:57] Awesome. I love that. And let's link to this program too so if you want to check it out and learn more you can just click directly through.
Jessica: [00:18:06] Let's take a reset. This is Jessica Miller Merrill. And you were listening to the work all G podcast today we were talking with Laura Ruby and Megan Lawrence about smart cities and accessibility. This podcast is sponsored by clear company and is part of the future of work series in partnership with the partnership on employment and accessible technology. Or PEAT.
Break: [00:18:28] This episode has been sponsored by clear company a complete talent management software provider clear company software solutions include award winning Applicant Tracking onboarding and performance management solutions. Prior retain and engage more top talent with clear company.
Jessica: [00:18:43] I think that maybe people have thought about smart cities or hopefully they've read about it in the news or listened to a show or this podcast like oh this sounds really really great but this is a podcast for workplace leaders right. So I want to ask how do smart cities impact employers and employees.
Megan: [00:19:01] Yeah this is Megan. You know cities are where people with disabilities live work and play right. And we know that employment does not start when you walk into the door of your workplace. So we really begin to see cities and employers as part of a larger ecosystem. And so we need cities to be accessible to support that whole employee right from getting the education that they need and want having accessible transportation so people can move freely in their environment being able to socialize with friends and family at restaurants and parks and you know all of the kinds of places where people come together in cities and then hopefully the goal is being able to provide that pathway for people to get that dream job that they always wanted. And so again it's really important that we begin to see that larger scope of what it means for a person with a disability to be living and being employed within any location. But again cities are often the largest employers the inclusive accessibility maturity model for smart cities really takes a look at how that city is creating an inclusive work environment for people with disabilities and really support and promote inclusive hiring because you know the bottom line is since the passing of the ACA we haven't seen unemployment significantly increase. And in fact some statistics are showing that unemployment has increased just ever so slightly. So if we're really going to change the unemployment rate for people with disabilities it's going to take all of us coming together to provide that support system. So you know oftentimes people will say well you know what. What would be your one piece of advice which is always really challenging but similar to what Laura said a little bit earlier about procurement and the importance of being able to buy accessible products. So we want to help cities along with everybody who's listening here think about what does it mean for your organization to truly buy accessible technology. So I encourage everybody to ask their vendors to start providing information about the accessibility of their products and ask for documentation about how their products meet global accessibility standards such as Section 5 a week here in the United States which at two point one double A which are international web standards. And certainly if you have a global business thinking about EN standards so even 3 0 1 5 4 9 and were a you know you and I have recently seen a number of other countries in fact coming out with really great accessibility policies which support this kind of procurement. So there's new policies in Mexico in France and in fact in Japan as well. So I think in order to truly drive that unemployment rate down to make sure that we're bringing accessibility talent into our companies we need to buy and deploy accessible technology.
Laura: [00:21:57] Yes definitely. Megan and I wanted to jump in right here because G3 ICT created this awesome discussion guide that cities and any other government can use when they're talking to a technology vendor and it gives the government entity a whole set of questions to ask so that they can be sure that they're buying technology that meets global standards. It gives them advice on what kinds of questions to ask about you know who the technology works for and how and it's just a super I think it's a super helpful tool for for anyone who makes that decision that they're going to buy accessible technology we can we can maybe share that link.
Jessica: [00:22:50] Absolutely. Well I also wanted to ask what are some ways that employers can encourage or collaborate with these cities maybe you know I live in Austin maybe I'd love Austin to become a Smart City like how do I as a business owner and an employer of people get involved.
Megan: [00:23:07] Yeah this is Megan. So you know if we really look at modern day statistics which show one in five people have a disability today these really hurt our communities that we live in. And again harking back to what I mentioned earlier it is a symbiotic relationship for any business owner small or large to support the inclusion of people with disabilities in their local communities. You don't law and I were talking just briefly before we got on this podcast with you and saying you know that large companies like Microsoft like AT&T like MasterCard don't all have best practices for hiring people with disabilities. So it's similar to bringing the city together to have rich conversations among themselves. We also have the opportunity to share best practices between our city and our state and local government communities and the businesses that are operating there. So you know my one word of advice is get the conversation started. We have a lot to learn from each other.
Jessica: [00:24:05] You guys have been a long term corporate partner with the Smart Cities program. Why are accessible cities a priority from the Microsoft perspective.
Laura: [00:24:15] You know kind of as we mentioned before it's Microsoft's mission to empower people and organizations to do more. And you know the world is made up of cities and cities are organizations that serve people then. And so you're saying cities employ people they engage citizens they impact people's health education safety. So cities can't serve citizens or employ people unless they're inclusive. And technology can help and it's it's pretty much that simple.
Jessica: [00:24:44] One of the things about smart cities is the use of technology and data to help make the city more accessible but also the city and its infrastructure more innovative. Can you talk to me about how data and information help drive this.
Megan: [00:24:58] Absolutely. This is Megan you know data is the lifeblood of any smart city right. When we think about this term smart city we really mean using technology to begin to optimize services or provide better ways of engaging with citizens. One of my favorite examples of what a smart city is is looking at a smart trash can. You may have seen these on your city streets. What does that mean. They actually have little sensors that go in these trash cans that tell when they're full. So the trash collectors can go ahead and pick up the garbage cans that are full and leave the rest of them until they are full which reduces the amount of impact that those very very large garbage trucks have on city infrastructure. Right. So we're optimizing from the trash collection perspective of how often they're out collecting and we're reducing the amount of impact that it has on the city infrastructure reducing the cost of having to improve roads over time. So if we think about that idea of how data is incredibly important for any city it begs the question which is how are you proactively including data from the disability community and about the accessibility of the city itself. Because what we want to try to do is make sure that we are empowering cities to build again that data driven investment strategy. So I've got one example of a partner called Move it. It's the number one app transportation app in the world today. They have proactively gone out and made sure that that application is fully accessible for the blind and low vision community by bringing on engineers that are blind and low vision to help make sure that the design and the development not only meet global accessibility standards but truly is a good usable experience. They have wheelchair routing through 86 countries globally. So beginning to think about how people with mobility disabilities or people who might have a baby stroller or just don't want to have to walk uphill can think about routing through a city and it's localized to 40 or languages. Right. So again they brought the disability voice in to the way that they their application and now I think most importantly it's they are providing their API on Azure maps. So anybody who's an ATM company and wants to create a navigation system in their application can use all of that data and create an accessible experience for citizens in any city globally.
Jessica: [00:27:34] I love it. I hadn't even thought about the trashcans thing but that is and the examples that you provided it just makes the city operationally more sound and staffing decisions and deployment decisions like it all fits together.
Megan: [00:27:49] Yeah I mean I really I couldn't agree more. And I think if we kind of turn to this question of like how is accessibility about the physical environment you are talking about data from people with disabilities now let's turn to physical environment. You know we need to again begin to think about how we are truly creating inclusive artificial intelligence. And when I say inclusive artificial intelligence I really mean making sure that we've got great data from the physical environment and people with disabilities that help make sure that those solutions are are reducing bias. So another really great example that I have is a company called cyclo media. They work to the city of New York using light hour data and high resolution imagery to map the entire city and look at all of their curb cuts. And so now what they've done is be able to provide again that data driven investment strategy to figure out how they are going to improve the physical infrastructure over time to be more accessible.
Jessica: [00:28:54] Thank you so much for all the resources and insights that you guys have shared. Where can people go to learn more about inclusive and accessible smart cities. And then also connect with you each individually.
Laura: [00:29:06] To learn more about the smart cities for all initiative. People can go to smart cities for and that's the number for all dot org. And if people want to learn more generally about accessible technology and Microsoft's success accessible technology they can go to Microsoft dot com slash accessibility.
Jessica: [00:29:28] Awesome. And I'm typing down the links as you're sharing we'll put these in the transcript of the podcast so you can go directly to work all G dot com and be able to get the reports that we've cited all the links that both Megan and Laura have shared today. Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you. Thank you.
Closing: [00:29:48] The workology podcast future of work series is supported by PEAT the partnership on employment and accessible technology PEAT's initiative is to foster collaboration and action around accessible technology in the workplace. PEAT is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy. ODEP. Learn more about PEAT and peatworks dot org. That's PEAT t w o r k s dot org.
Closing: [00:30:17] Smart cities are an important part of making not just cities but the lives of those who live and work within our cities. A more inclusive and accessible place as a data nerd. I am really interested in how technologies and tools can help to improve city operation support offerings and infrastructure. I love Microsoft's involvement and the work that G3 I see t is also doing. I find the use of technology and data extremely interesting and not unlike what we're seeing in H.R. pulling data from all different places and information from various technologies and systems into a single unified format or home. Maybe the smart cities model might be the model for our own workplace and data analytics. The future of workplace series is in partnership with Pete and is one of my favorites. Thank you to Pete as well as our podcast sponsor clear Company Exit: [00:31:08] Production Services for the workology podcast with Jessica Miller Merrill provided by total picture dot.com.