Keeping the heat on

Obama's success - like Bill Clinton’s - is rooted in an uncanny sense of the electorate's mood, and

Dressed in blue jeans and a black jacket, Obama braved the cold rain falling in Pennsylvania today, and held his scheduled rally - outdoors. “A little bit of rain never hurt anybody,” he said to the thousands who showed up as he embraced the weather conditions.

“I just want all of you to know if we see this kind of dedication on election day – there is no way that we’re not going to bring change to America,” he said as the soggy crowd cheered.

Obama delivered his “closing argument” speech in full - even though his teleprompter seemed to give out midway due to the rain. Glancing down at a hard copy of the speech on the podium, he began the speech, summarising and contextualising the themes of his campaign since it began 21 months ago.

Obama’s remarks drive home one of the under-appreciated aspects of this amazing campaign: The similarities between Obama and Bill Clinton, and between their respective readings of the electorates each man sought to win over.

The speech showed, again, that Obama rivals (and perhaps surpasses) Clinton as one of the great public communicators of the last few decades. But their similarities run deeper. Obama's success - like Clinton’s - is rooted in an uncanny sense of the electorate's mood, and of what it's looking for in its next leader. Crucially, Clinton sensed that the electorate was looking for a clear signal from its next President on just how the nation would be moved from the 20th Century to the 21st at a time of rapid global change.

As his speech makes clear, Obama's reading of the electorate is in some way very similar today to Clinton’s 16 years ago. In the speech, Obama revisited his decision to run for President against tremendous odds, and alluded to the drift he sensed - as did Clinton - among voters.

"We weren't given much of a chance by the polls or the pundits, and we knew how steep our climb would be," Obama said. "But I also knew this. I knew that the size of our challenges had outgrown the smallness of our politics. I believed that Democrats and Republicans and Americans of every political stripe were hungry for new ideas, new leadership, and a new kind of politics - one that favours common sense over ideology; one that focuses on those values and ideals we hold in common as Americans."

"Twenty-one months later, my faith in the American people has been vindicated," Obama added.

If Obama should win he will have outworked McCain in a similar fashion to the way Clinton outmanoeuvred Bush Sr. Like Clinton, Obama has sensed that the electorate is looking for something larger than a set of policies or personal attributes. Unlike McCain, who has proven utterly incapable of grasping the public mood on so many levels, Obama has sensed that the electorate wants to know how we will remake our politics - domestic and international - for the next century.

Clinton famously envisaged his presidency as a "bridge" from the 20th to the 21st centuries in terms of keeping America at pace with globalisation. Obama is presenting his presidency as Act II in that drama - now that we've crossed Clinton's "bridge," he is promising to transform politics in kind. In essence, Obama is promising a true 21st Century politics.

"As I've said from the day we began this journey all those months ago, the change we need isn't just about new programs and policies," Obama said. "In this election, we cannot afford the same political games and tactics that are being used to pit us against one another and make us afraid of one another. The stakes are too high to divide us by class and region and background; by who we are or what we believe."

Obama has sensed this state of affairs for years. Today's message, really, hasn't changed much from the vision Obama articulated in his famous 2004 convention speech. It just took a while for Obama to come within real striking distance of implementing it.

In what is likely to be his final campaign event in Pennsylvania, Obama urged his supporters to be as resolute in the coming days as they were today, braving the elements and keeping their eyes firmly on the possibility of victory next week.

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.