Kamilla Ryding has had severe visual impairment since birth but that has hardly slowed her down.
The 29yearold is building a research career in her native Copenhagen, has lived in the U.S. and Australia, and is a competitive distance runner currently considering her first full marathon. But still, there are times when Ryding wishes she could have a set of working eyes, if only for a few seconds.
Thanks to her fellow Dane Hans Jørgen Wiberg, she now can.
Wiberg is the cofounder of the iPhone app Be My Eyes, which connects blind users with an army of sighted volunteers (an Android version is under development). When a blind user needs help, she accesses the app using the iPhone’s VoiceOver controls and Be My Eyes rings up the first available volunteer.
The two are connected over the blind user’s video camera and the sighted user lends his eyes for a fairly mundane task, such as checking the expiry date on food, that usually takes just a minute or two. It’s a process Wiberg refers to as microvolunteering. “A lot of people want to do something good but they are busy,” he said. “With this app, they have an opportunity to help out if they have time.”
Ryding, who has only one percent of her vision left, said she typically uses Be My Eyes once a week, primarily for help in identifying household goods.
Wiberg himself is visually impaired, and many of his blind friends were already using their iPhones to get assistance from family and friends for small tasks. A craftsman by trade, he had no real tech experience but knew there must be a way to connect blind and sighted users on a larger scale.
In 2012, he presented his idea at a Danish startup conference and Be My Eyes was born. Less than three years later, the app was officially launched. Thousands of users signed up, a few celebrities offered endorsements, and the next thing he knew, Wiberg was at the helm of one of the year’s fastest growing apps, now boasting around 200,000 sighted volunteers, 18,000 blind users and connections in 80 different languages.
As helpful as the app is for physical challenges, perhaps its biggest benefit is psychological. Blind users no longer have to rely solely on family and friends, which keeps them from feeling like a burden. “I like to have a friend be a friend and not a helper,” Ryding said.
Wiberg said that the blind users appreciate “being able to ask for help without really asking” and that the app allows them to accomplish minor tasks immediately rather than waiting for a friend or neighbor.
For Ryding, Be My Eyes hasn’t been a game changer, but it is one more tool in her toolbox. She said, “I’ve been living 29 years without the app so I’ve gotten into certain systems and routines for doing things without it. I have to get used to using it instead of asking other people or just trying to figure it out myself.” She noted that she enjoys using the app and finds it helpful.
That is exactly how Wiberg would have it.“I don’t consider Be My Eyes as something that will change people’s lives but it can help them do things they otherwise wouldn’t,” he said. “My dream is that blind people will be able to live more independent lives. Maybe they will cook dinner so that it’s ready when their spouse comes home because now they know that if they get stuck in the middle of the process, they can just use Be My Eyes to check something and move on.”
Although it’s successfully connected tens of thousands of blind and sighted users, Be My Eyes still faces growing pains. One issue is funding. Original financing for the project runs out in September and Wiberg said his team is “open to any suggestions” including donations, crowdfunding and sponsorships. He vowed that the app will always remain free for users.
Wiberg also said they are dealing with the “positive” problem that sighted volunteers outnumber blind users ten to one. Nonetheless, blind users still sometimes encounter long wait times that lead them to give up and find a different solution. The day I met Ryding, she tried to use the app but the connection kept dropping; she insisted it was the first time she had encountered this issue.
Once Be My Eyes irons out these problems, Wiberg hopes to expand into the developing world.
The World Health Organization estimates that 90 percent of the world’s 285 million visually-impaired people live in lowincome areas.
But blind people aren’t the only beneficiaries; volunteers also have much to gain. After helping a blind man read a card he received in the mail, one volunteer from Hawaii posted on Facebook, “This is the first app that has ever affected me on such an emotional level, and the idea that my tiny contribution made a difference in some complete stranger’s life leaves me with a huge sense of satisfaction…I feel like I’m getting more out of this app than the person who called me.”
This article was published in newspapers around the world as part of Impact Journalism Day. Among the outlets in which it appeared were Argentina's La Nación, All Africa, Denmark's Politiken, Nigeria's The Nation, Singapore's The Straits Times, The Irish Times, Honduras's El Heraldo, Algeria's El Watan, Switzerland's laRegioneTicino,
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