COTA buses are one of the top ways students get around the city of Columbus, OH. Credit: Lantern file photo

Ohio State professor Carmen DiGiovine started off as an engineering student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign unsure of where his major would take him. When a project emerged at UIUC in need of engineering students to improve the training facility for their national wheelchair racing team, DiGiovine realized the impact that his passion for engineering could have in the rehabilitation field.

What DiGiovine didn’t know then was that one day, he would receive support in form of a $40 million grant to create Smart Columbus, a mobile app designed to make public transportation in the city accessible to all.

“[UIUC] needed a treadmill roller system to train on that would allow them to mimic the Boston Marathon,” DiGiovine said. “I just developed one part of it and kind of fell in love with this idea with using engineering principles to support people with disabilities.”

DiGiovine, associate clinical professor and director of rehabilitation science and technology, used the discovery of his passion to shape his career and future service projects, including Smart Columbus.

In his current position at Ohio State as director of rehabilitation science and technology, DiGiovine works on various projects that help improve the overall quality of life for people with cognitive and physical disabilities. One is Smart Columbus, which focuses on making it easier for people to navigate COTA, Columbus’ fixed route public transportation system.

In collaboration with the Nisonger Center and AbleLinks Technologies company, DiGiovine and his team customized an app, which not only makes COTA accessible for people with disabilities, but also gives caregivers real-time tracking of where clients using the app are.

“We use real world landmarks and bring that into the navigation map to make it easier for a person with a cognitive disability to be able to use that app, identify the landmarks and then be able to use the fixed route bus system,”DiGiovine said.

The Smart Columbus project was supported by the Smart City Grant, which awarded the city $40 million to put towards the effort of bettering public transportation in Columbus. Columbus was chosen out of 70 other cities to receive the grant.

Julie Faieta, a Ph.D. student in health and rehabilitation science, worked closely with DiGiovine to push Smart Columbus forward. Faieta said the project is intended to increase users’ independence, autonomy and overall quality of life.

“It’s important that individuals feel confident that they can get to work, attend leisure activities that are meaningful for them [and] are able to reach family and friends more independently or more confidently,” Faieta said.

DiGiovine and his team expect the project to commence its “go live” stage in the next year, when it will be ready to test in the community. A shared goal between DiGiovine and Faieta is that the project is sustainable.

“To make it a sustainable project, we’re working with the app developers to improve this app,” Faieta said. “We’re testing it, evaluating it and wanting it to be something that people can use and continue to use over time moving forward.”