Beltway Briefing

The top five stories from US politics today.

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1. Will Rick Perry put himself forward for the Republican candidacy? The Texas governor is said to be very close to announcing his bid. As a mainstream conservative who is also well liked by the evangelical and Tea Party factions of the party, he has the potential for widespread appeal. At the end of his speech at the Republican spring conference this weekend, he received a standing ovation and the audience chanted "Run, Rick, Run!"

Perry, a former air force pilot, is a good speaker and was even better received than other popular figures at the conference, including Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachman, who has already announced her candidacy. Known as an all-American tough guy, he jogs with a pistol in his belt and shot a coyote during a run last year.

The Wall Street Journal reports that his aides are currently looking at the problems he would face as a late entrant, such as raising sufficient funds. Romney and Bachmann: live in fear.

2. Ron Paul is celebrating his victory in a straw poll taken at the same weekend conference. The Texas congressman -- who at 75 says he is not too old to be president -- gained 612 votes, despite not matching this success in nationwide polls. This rating put him far ahead of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who got 382 votes in the straw poll and is expected to join the race later this week.

Here is Paul on NBC's Today, saying that his victory shows that he appeals to people who are fed up with US involvement in "endless, undeclared, unwinnable wars dumped on the young people", and concerned about the economy.

3. Bachman has cemented her reputation as a formidable fundraiser. Her latest filing with the Federal Election Commission, the Republican presidential hopeful had $2.8 million cash on hand. By comparison, the veteran politician Paul has $1.6 million. She took in $13.5 million in the 2010 election cycle, making her the most prolific fundraiser in the House.

Interestingly, the vast majority of this is from individuals making relatively small donations, which is in keeping with her position as the grassroots, Tea Party candidate. Of the $1.7 million she reported raising last quarter, all but $1,500 came from individuals. The average donation was just $619.34. Her individual contributions are now nearly 100 per cent of her total funds, compared with just over half in 2006.

The Washington Post attributes this to "money blurts", which create excitement and attract a high volume of small donors:

[Bachman has] made a specialty of raising money in the wake of bold and well-placed remarks. Shortly after accusing President Obama of having "anti-American views" during one cable-news appearance, for example, Bachmann took in nearly $1 million.

Will other candidates be inspired to make similarly lucrative, controversial statements?

4. A study by a Facebook advertising firm appears to suggest that the best bet for Republican candidates trying to attract online clicks is to focus their ads on President Barack Obama, rather than on issues such as the economy.

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It also showed that Sarah Palin is still a bigger magnet for online page views than any of the other announced or potential Republican presidential hopefuls -- although this could be because she has greater recognition. The Huffington Post has more details on the data.

5. Senator John McCain angered the Latino community by claiming yesterday that illegal immigrants were responsible for starting some of the huge fires that have devastated Arizon in recent weeks. He said there was "substantial evidence" that migrants set fires to keep warm, signal to others, or distract border guards, although he didn't say what this evidence was.

This is good news for the Obama administration, which is engaged in an aggressive push for Hispanic support ahead of 2012. After successes with increasing black voter turn-out in 2008, Obama's team is trying to raise historically low rates of Hispanic registration and turnout in at least six swing states.

However, according to Politico, Obama has angered one national Hispanic organisation by missing their annual conference for the third consecutive year, despite promising before his election in 2008 that he would return as president.

Juan C. Zapata, a Florida Republican and chairman of the group's educational fund, told Politico: "He sent a very clear message to the Hispanic community that, 'I want your support on the campaign, but I am not willing to do anything to earn it'."

 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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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.