10 Jun 2016, 16:45 Projects

Helping a blind athlete run four marathons, without a guide

Our mission in the Garage is to do innovative and exciting projects, so we were thrilled to help Simon Wheatcroft in his bid to be the first blind runner to complete the 4 Deserts Namibia race solo. We wrote a native iOS app for Simon which is pre-loaded with routes (such as Simon’s training route near his house, the Boston Marathon, and the 4 deserts stages). If Simon goes more than ten metres off course, the app beeps to let him know that he needs to veer left or right. The app does a low beep for left, and a higher beep for right, and a bit like a car reversing sensor, the more frantic the beeping, the further off course Simon is.

Simon Wheatcroft looking determined

One of the underpinnings of the Bluemix Garage Method is that you don’t know everything at the beginning of a project. The aim of development is to reduce uncertainty about the business problem, while minimising risk. We had a concrete example of “incomplete knowledge” with Simon’s app, because it turns out the pre-plotted race route didn’t end up being the actual race route. For example, one part of the run is along a beach, and the course was about 100 metres to the right of our coordinates. Because of how we’d designed the app, Simon was able to cope with the change - he just had to keep to a path which kept the app beeping at a “medium frantic” level. It can’t have been very relaxing, but it worked. We also made assumptions that the desert would be pretty flat and obstacle-free, so when we prioritised our user stories, things like “obstacle detection” were at the bottom of the backlog. It turns out that parts of the desert are rocky. Because he couldn’t see what kind of surface he was putting his feet on, Simon hurt his feet and legs trying to race over the rock fields - he was badly enough injured that he had to withdraw from the race after running only (!) three and three quarter marathons.

Another aspect of the Garage method is responding quickly to change, both in terms of our planning, and also our implementation. Normally we bake devops into our development so that it’s a matter of minutes to get updates out to users. In the area of the Namib desert where Simon was running, there was no data coverage, so once he landed there, we couldn’t make any more improvements to the app. In other words, there’s no devops in the desert.

The most important part of the Garage method is the user. We were lucky that we were able to work closely with Simon through the whole project, from the ideas stage to inception to after the event. We hope our applications delight users, but with Simon we knew it did; all of us in the Garage were moved when Simon came back and told us how he’d found himself in tears halfway through the first leg of the race, from exhilaration at having achieved his dream of racing solo.

Further reading

A lot has been written about Simon and the app we wrote for him. I can’t even link to a fraction of it, but here are some of my favourites: