After 18 years working with guide dogs, Gavin Neate developed an app and Bluetooth system that turns the world into a more accessible and inclusive place, with applications ranging from tourism to pedestrian crossings.
Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is steeped in history, from the imposing majesty of the castle sitting at one end of the thoroughfare to the more refined grandeur of the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the other. Visitors to Scotland’s capital are treated to hundreds of years of heritage as they wander between the attractions, stopping to watch Fringe performers during August’s festival and sheltering in the fascinating array of shops and cafes during the winter.
As tourists stomp between the castle and the palace, they pass a weird and wonderful collection of closes, tiny streets that run between the buildings of the Old Town. Each one has its own story to tell, with some becoming rather famous: Mary King’s Close was struck by the plague in 1645 and is now open for tours; Fleshmarket Close is named after the old meat market and became the title for one of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus mysteries; while the World’s End Close will forever be linked with the murders committed by Angus Sinclair.
Gavin Neate is out to tell the stories of some of the lesser-known closes that line the Royal Mile and tell them to a wider audience than ever before. His company, Neatebox, teamed up with the City of Edinburgh Council to install Bluetooth ‘beacons’ in the closes and develop a free app – called ‘Edinburgh Up Close: Footsteps Through Time’ – that visitors can download onto their Apple iPhone mobiles or their iPad tablet computers. As tourists reach the entrance to a close, the app picks up a simple signal from the beacon and then displays information about the close on their screen, including an audio commentary and images.
“I won one of the categories at the council’s first Edinburgh Apps competition back in 2013 and we started working together from there,” explains Neate. “The council has been very supportive.”
Neate’s beacons use a little-known low-energy form of Bluetooth, which means that phones or tablets don’t have to be ‘paired’ with the beacon in the same way that they would if they wanted to swap data with a music speaker or a laptop computer. The low-power beacons can also run using a single coin-sized cell battery for a whole year, meaning that they don’t have to be wired into the mains electricity.
Using low-power Bluetooth for Neate’s beacons also means that users don’t need to connect to wifi or pay for expensive mobile data over their phone’s network. Tourists can choose their own route and follow the beacons in any order, stopping off along the way.
Relying on passive Bluetooth instead of wifi or active Bluetooth means that users can access the app without having to come into contact with advertising from businesses, which may otherwise have been needed if shops or restaurants were asked to supply mains electricity for the beacons. Neate says that a key part of his personal and company mission is that his solutions are inclusive by design and available to as many people as possible, including those with hearing or sight impairments – an issue that’s very close to his heart following a career working with blind people and their guide dogs.
Neate has taken an unusual route to becoming an entrepreneur. He served for nine years with the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a police dog handler, latterly serving at RAF Leuchars near St Andrews in Fife, which is now being turned into an army base for the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the Royal Engineers, and the Military Provost Staff, which supervises custody and detention of suspects.
Although he enjoyed working in the RAF, he didn’t want to extend his initial nine-year commitment to 12 or 22 years and so Neate began looking at options for his career beyond the armed forces. During his time at Leuchars, he began volunteering with the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, the charity that trains and supplies dogs to people who have lost all or some of their sight and which is now simply known as Guide Dogs. Volunteering led onto applying for full-time work after he left the air force, kicking off an 18-year career with the organisation as a guide dog mobility instructor that also saw him moving with it from its former base in Forfar to its new home in Edinburgh.
“During my time with Guide Dogs, I was fascinated with how my blind and partially-sighted clients were using modern technology,” explains Neate. “I would visit them in their home areas and observe them working with their guide dogs and they would show me the latest apps they were using on their iPhones or iPads. Many of the features they showed me were built into the phones’ operating systems and it became apparent that companies like Apple were making a real effort to engage with this new customer base.”
Seeing what digital technology was available to blind and partially-sighted people stoked Neate’s own interest in the area. As devices continued to develop, the apps created for Apple’s iPhone were matched with Android equivalents that would run on Samsung, Sony and other makes.
“A lot of so-called digital technology ‘solutions’ for disabled people are designed by developers who might not really understand the problems,” says Neate. “For example, I recently saw a Braille tablet computer, which – instead of just displaying one line of Braille type like existing devices – could display a whole page of Braille, to make the technology look much more like a standard tablet. “But what use is that to a blind person? Unless I’m missing something obvious, they’re unlikely to need to read a whole page at once, they’re just going to want to read one line at a time so why over engineer?
“I had first-hand experience of what blind people wanted through my work with Guide Dogs and many of my clients are now my friends.”
Edinburgh’s Royal Mile isn’t the only location to have used the Neatebox. Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen worked with Neate on a trial of his system of beacons at the National Museum of Flight at East Fortune in East Lothian, where Scotland’s Concorde – call sign “Golf-Bravo Oscar Alpha Alpha” – is now housed. The jet was the first plane in British Airways’ Concorde fleet to go into service in 1976 and completed 8,064 flights before being put on display at the museum after the squadron of super-sonic aircraft was retired from duty in 2003.
Next steps for the system include designing an Android version of its iPhone app and adding in British Sign Language videos so that deaf people have more than just the text and images currently available. Neate is also working with Edinburgh City of Literature to create an app that promotes the books and writers connected with the city.
“Edinburgh was the first place to be designated as a city of literature by the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organisation (Unesco),” Neate notes. “There are so many literary connections in the city, like the Scott Monument on Princes Street and the Scottish Storytelling Centre on the Royal Mile.” Yet tourism is only one of many applications for Neate’s beacons. While the ‘Attractions Neatebox’ can open up Edinburgh’s tourist trail for disabled people, perhaps the inventor’s proudest achievement so far is his ‘Pedestrian Neatebox’, which tackles a much-more everyday dilemma.
“When a person in a wheelchair reaches a pedestrian crossing then the button is often at the wrong height or out of reach,” he explains. “On narrow pavements, the pole with the control box button attached to it is often placed really close to the road, and so the person in the wheelchair might have to position themselves really close to the edge of the pavement in order to press the button.
“That can be really dangerous on corners, if big lorries are making a tight turn. The same is true for steep pavements – the person in the wheelchair maybe grabbing their brake in one hand while trying not to overbalance as they reach to push the button with the other.
“There are similar problems for blind people. Once they’ve found the button on the control box using their guide dog or their long stick then they have to line themselves up with the edge of the pavement so that they’re in the right place to cross.
“That can take time and if the green man starts beeping and flashing before they’re lined up then they may not have time to cross and so have to press the button again and then wait for the next cycle. It’s important to line yourself up with the edge of the pavement otherwise you may trip on the raised edge of head off in the wrong direction when you’re crossing. This all combines to make crossing a road for many a far more complex and potentially dangerous procedure than is immediately obvious.”
Neate’s solution to the problem is to install an adapted form of his beacons in the control boxes at pedestrian crossings. Blind or otherwise mobility-impaired people can then switch on the Bluetooth on their mobile phone before they leave the house and load-up a dedicated app. The app will then automatically ‘press’ the button on the control box for them digitally by sending a signal to the passive Bluetooth beacon. This gives blind people time to line themselves up for the crossing without worrying about finding the button to press, while people using wheelchairs don’t have to reach for high buttons.
“We looked at using the global positioning system (GPS) but that was only accurate to between five and ten metres and so that was no use,” explains Neate. “We also looked at near-field communications (NFC) transmitters and receivers, but they only work over about 22 centimetres. Low-power Bluetooth was the answer.” His system is currently on trial at a pedestrian crossing at Royal Bank of Scotland’s Gogarburn global headquarters on the edge of Edinburgh, where the beacons can also be activated using Apple’s smart watch. The beacons have also been installed at a four-way traffic light system on Lauriston Place, near the old Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh site, which is being transformed into the Quartermile development featuring offices, flats and shops, and is close to the Princess Alexandra Eye Pavilion.
The third application for the beacons is the ‘Customer Service Neatebox’, which it is hoped will shortly be on trial with Virgin Money. Disabled customers can program an app on their mobile phone or tablet computer to tell the beacon in a shop about the type and amount of customer service they require. The beacon then relays the information to tablets or mobiles being carried by customer service assistants, so they instantly know what help each individual requires.
“For a blind person, they could use the app and beacons to tell the assistant which arm to take to guide them around the store or they could use it to ask the assistant to just ignore their guide dog instead of distracting it on its head every time that they come into the store,” says Neate. “It could be something as simple as asking the assistant to introduce themselves by name to a blind person – a lot of blind people will hold entire conversations on the street with people who they might meet every day but whose name they’ve never known because that person has never introduced themself.
“For a young, independent person using a wheelchair then they may use the app to thank the staff for offering to help but to tell them that actually they just want to go round and do their shopping on their own. As our population gets older, customer service is going to become even more complicated, but this system could be used to tell staff what help that someone with dementia or Parkinson’s disease or epilepsy needs and ultimately helps the retail outlet provide a better service.”
Neate funded his business by selling his home to finance his research and development costs. Now, he has raised £140,000 through family and friends, with match funding supplied by the Scottish Investment Bank, the finance arm of Scottish Enterprise, which is also working with Neatebox as one of its account-managed high-growth companies.
He has also brought on board two non-executive directors: Professor Charles Swainson, a doctor who was involved in the designs for the new Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh at Little France on the edge of the city; and Biju Krishnan, a dental surgeon who practices in the UK, US, South East Asia and Australasia. Neate’s efforts have been recognised through him winning a runners-up prize at Virgin’s Pitch2Rich event, and the opportunity to meet serial entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, and also a runners-up prize for the most innovative business at the WeDo Scotland Awards, for which BQ Scotland magazine was the media partner.
The market support for his creation was demonstrated when he scooped a commendation in the ‘Use of Technical Innovation’ category at The Drum marketing magazine’s Dadi Awards in 2014.
Among all the talk of tourism and customer services, “inclusive” is a word that’s seldom far from Neate’s lips. “It’s not necessarily about making things accessible but about making them inclusive,” he explains. “When we say accessible, what we really mean is that we’re adapting mainstream devices to suit disabled people. Why not plan our infrastructure, facilities and devices with disabled people in mind from the very beginning so that we make our solutions more inclusive and bring our society closer in doing so?”