Hacks, whether clever or crude, have been known to create huge amounts of unexpected work for those developers unfortunate enough to have let their code grow around them, much like a building on a faulty footing. This will be no earth-shattering insight to anyone familiar with technical matters; however, I would like to devote a few lines by way of an example to the impact such solutions can have when accessibility is involved.

In the last few days, Google has been rolling out its new and redesigned version of Maps for Android. The app itself is much improved, both in terms of performance and accessibility, with a slimmed-down, well labeled interface which makes finding and getting directions to locations easier and faster. So far, so good, but, it seems to have shed one of the best mobility aids on Android in the process, a feature called Intersection Explorer.

Originally released as a stand-alone application for Android versions between 2.3 and 4.0, it was later integrated as an experimental feature under the apparently defunct Labs section present on later versions. Whether as an app or as a Maps feature, it allowed the user to quickly slide a finger on the screen to locate nearby street crossings in a neighbourhood, thereby allowing to build a mental map before venturing out or reorient oneself if lost.

Unfortunately, Intersection Explorer is really a hack to get around the fact that the Map views themselves are inaccessible. Indeed, it was so much of a hack that it sometimes impeded proper use of Maps' other functionalities. In that sense, its removal and, hopefully, reimplementation is a positive development; but, meanwhile, it leaves many users painfully hanging, since there is no other comparable alternative available on Android at the moment.

And there's the rub; accessibility must be considered a production-grade feature, because those of us relying on it for daily activities, however few there may be, are left stranded when things go wrong or, worse yet, simply vanish. Since all hacks must either fail or be scrapped as superfluous in long term development, people implementing accessibility solutions should be very wary of employing them, though it might mean a slightly longer wait period for end-users, lest those users suffer the loss of autonomy resulting from breakage.

UPDATE: The stand-alone version of Intersection Explorer, hitherto only available for Android 4.0 and earlier was updated today, making it available for Jelly Bean (4.1+) as well. The application seems to work well enough, save for a few reported crashes and some inconsistencies while navigating the menu. You can grab it here on the Play Store. While I'm sure many users will be relieved to get this functionality back so quickly, this abrupt and unforeseen change still highlights how lack of forethought in implementation can impact accessibility users in a negative way.