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Community-made content which you can improve Case study from our community

Collaborating with higher education institutes to create bespoke innovation - Age UK and University of Exeter

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This case study outlines a collaboration between Age UK and the University of Exeter on how innovation and creating new opportunities for innovation can aid the charity's current transport management system. We aim to help you understand how bespoke solutions can be achieved when charities interact, collaborate and build relationships with higher education institutes. Moreover, the collaboration opens up many more funding opportunities otherwise not available to the voluntary sector.


At Age UK Cornwall & Isles of Scilly we have a fleet of 12 minibuses and around 250 volunteer drivers on our Transport Access People (TAP) Community Transport scheme. 

TAP provides service users with the essential mobility they need to access a range of healthcare appointments and social events.  Mobility is an important component of an aging population’s wellbeing; creating access to more healthcare services and opportunities for social enrichment.  This is in fact a more pertinent issue in a region such as Cornwall where the landscape is predominantly rural meaning isolation is a more common risk and unfortunately reality for the elderly.  Therefore we strive to provide our TAP services more efficiently in terms of time and cost. 

Over the past 18 months we have worked in collaboration with the University of Exeter to co-design a smartphone app that aims to improve how we deploy our volunteer drivers and achieve higher service satisfaction.

The issues we faced

Our main issues ranged from making our journey planning more efficient and enhancing communication between us, the drivers and service users.  The collaboration with the University of Exeter made us delve into our issues more deeply and document what exactly needed to be addressed.  See the priorities we aimed to target below:

  • Currently planners assign journeys manually by scrolling through a database of possible drivers.
  • Journey planners spend a large proportion of their time matching service user preferences with driver preferences – this process has to be repeated for each journey.
  • The travel expenses system is paper based and has to be administrated one-by-one on to the current system.
  • We have no visual interface of our driver, service user and destination locations to see where we have gaps in our service.
  • We have limited funds for updating our systems and adding digital features to improve our time efficiency.

Overall, our current system is extremely time intensive!

The actions we took

The most important action we took was to work closely with researchers Dr Michael Leyshon, Dr Tim Walker and Dr Shukru Esmene from the University of Exeter.  We have differing priorities to academic research but were able to work towards a common role.  The approach we took was crucial to achieving a positive working relationship. 

The key?

Transparency!  We were open about the issues we faced and potential actions that could create friction in our organisation from the offset. 

An example of this was potentially implementing a system that automated routing journeys for our drivers.  However, through initiating feedback we identified this to be inappropriate.  Drivers see routing as a key part of their role and identity as a volunteer driver and we do not want unhappy volunteers.  The researchers were in turn transparent with us with ongoing communication being a powerful tool against misunderstandings and unrealistic expectations. 

Positive outcomes

1. An opportunity to develop our transport management system through a wider range of funding opportunities i.e. the collaboration opened the door to academic funding streams such as the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Innovation Fund.

2. A bespoke plan of how a smartphone app can automate some of our processes to save time.

3. Gaining a more in-depth understanding of the needs of our drivers and service users, and design an app most aligned with their needs and preferences.

4. Future proofing our solution – our ongoing discussions with the researchers led us to consider how the app can be updated in the future to improve our services. An example being keeping automated routing an open option; future volunteer drivers will be more familiar with such technologies.

5. A continuing working relationship we hope to maintain with the University of Exeter and become a pioneer organisation on using academic research to improve volunteer sector services.

Negative outcomes

1. Keeping ongoing communication during the collaboration is time intensive itself – therefore during periods responses have been slow.

2.  Collaborative funding opportunities have different timeframes and criteria.  This can be confusing and during certain periods has slowed down progress.

3. Potential upfront costs of creating and implementing an app.

4. Addressing the slow uptake and or interest in using an app amongst current volunteer drivers.

Lessons learnt

1. Patience is key!  It is extremely important to get feedback from all the people an update to a transport management system will impact – even if this slows progress at times.

2. The openness to a system change can be enhanced by prioritising the needs of the volunteers and service providers.  Planning updates to a new system rather than hastily aiming for the most cost and or time saving option from the offset provides steadier progress but also more welcome progress.

3. This approach of collaborative working and expansive feedback can be applied to other services we may want alter or update in the future.  The solutions accomplished are more bespoke and cost can be relieved to some extent with a wider range of funding opportunities available.


Page last edited Jun 05, 2017

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