From time to time, our own T.V. Raman shares his tips on how to use Google from his perspective as a technologist who cannot see -- tips that sighted people, among others, may also find useful. - Ed.

A little over a year ago, I blogged about our simple textual directions as an alternative to the popular graphical Google Maps interface. Those directions help me orient myself and learn my way around. But in the interest of safety -- my own and others! -- I choose not to drive and rely heavily on public transportation.

Now that Maps has textual directions in place, it's easy to build on top of that interface to introduce new innovations that become immediately useful to someone like me. Google Transit is a great example of this -- it helps me locate public transportation options and does so in the text format that I need. In addition, it offers several nice features to help me plan my trip:

  • I can specify the desired departure or arrival time.
  • It will show more than one trip choice, allowing some flexibility with respect to when I'd like to start.
  • It estimates the amount of walking required to get to a transit stop/station.
  • It identifies the length of waiting at each transit point.
  • It estimates the comparable cost of transportation options, where available.

But these aren't the only benefits. Behind the scenes is the Google Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), an open data format used by public transit agencies to upload their data. Several agencies are already using these public feeds. Though GTFS is never seen by commuters directly, it opens up a wealth of possibilities with respect to accessibility and alternative access, such as building custom user interfaces and specialized route guidance applications that are optimized for people with special needs.

Though we added this alternative view to enhance the accessibility of Google Maps for blind and low-vision users, we hope that everyone finds it a useful addition to your commute arsenal. So next time you use the Maps graphical interface, give its cousin, the simple textual directions, a try -- there might be times when you find yourself using it even if you can see.

And here's to ever more open data feeds from the various public transport agencies!