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Lessons from ShareLab: Liftshare & HappyCT

In 2016 we launched the ShareLab Fund with a call for ideas that made use of collaborative digital platforms to create social impact. We selected eight pioneers who we’ve been working with closely over the last year and a half. Now the process is coming to a close and we’re starting to review the progress made and the lessons learnt. We’re going to be publishing updates as they come along and will wrap things up by collating our findings into a formal set of observations and recommendations.

Using lessons from the sharing economy to help solve transport poverty, loneliness and isolation

The HappyCT project was selected for funding as community transport seemed just the kind of under-utilised resource that could be successfully unlocked through technology. Led by Ali Clabburn, founder of Liftshare, the UK's largest car-sharing platform, this was judged to be a great idea and backed by a highly credible team. The project focused on how they could use their expertise and SaaS (software as a service) platform to help make community transport more accessible for those in need, as well as enabling a more sustainable model for providers by filling empty seats.

Things didn't quite work out as planned but the experience and insight gained is invaluable.

Here, CEO Ali Clabburn [AC] and Project Manager Jules Staples [JS] share what they have achieved so far, their key learnings and next steps for the future.

Volunteers and users of North Norfolk Community Bus

Why did you choose community transport as an area to focus on?

AC: Liftshare is a mission-driven social enterprise with a belief that many of the world’s mobility problems can be solved through sharing. While our primary focus for the last 20 years has been on helping individuals share cars to work, we’ve also developed a number of award winning tools and services to support other modes of sustainable transport. Community transport was one area we’d not worked in before but it had many similarities with what we do.

Community transport (CT) forms an essential part of our mobility mix however it needs to keep up with the ever-changing demands of the marketplace in order to stay relevant and viable. The rapid pace of change in some areas of the mobility market over recent years has highlighted the massive latent demand for providing personalised, demand-based, affordable services.

Whilst there is so much to love about the community transport sector, it has been very slow at embracing new ways of working.

The rise of loneliness in the UK is linked to transport poverty; the inability for many people to get out and about and engage in conversation with others on a regular basis. Often this happens as people are isolated in rural areas with little access to transport, or find transport too expensive.

And the problem is increasing - according to the Campaign to End Loneliness, with over half (51%) of all people aged 75 and over living alone, 17% of which are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week and 11% less than once a month. Community transport is run by amazing people across the UK, but many are reliant on volunteers and community groups. Hence, budgets are tight and providers work very separately on delivering a service, so individuals are not always aware of the range of services available to them.

We saw an opportunity to make a difference; to use the knowledge we had gained from 20 years at Liftshare to increase awareness of the community transport services available, whilst increasing occupancy levels (currently they run at less than 20% capacity) and utilisation of the vehicles themselves.

How did you approach the challenge?

JS: We identified three main challenges that needed to be overcome:

  1. The technical challenge: As community transport services tend to be flexible they don’t have fixed routes or timetables and so don’t meet the same standard data formats as scheduled transport services. So none of the online journey planners can display CT services in their results. If we could make these invisible services visible then we believed this would drive much greater awareness and use of the services.
  2. The utilisation challenge: Currently most CT services run at less than 20% capacity and many CT vehicles are not being used for many hours each day. Improving utilisation will improve the financial viability for providers and increase mobility for users.
  3. The adoption challenge: The sector has been very slow to adapt to change. We needed to understand what structural, legislative, institutional and behavioural challenges were preventing the adoption of better ways of working in the sector.

How did you address these challenges?

We started with solving the technical challenge of surfacing CT services in online journey planners.

  1. Firstly, finding a way to identify CT services that covered a user’s start and end location.
    Our innovation involved designing a journey search tool that looks at the shape of the area that the CT service provider covers rather than a specific route/line. By mapping the specific area (as a ‘geometric polygon’) and then building a new search tool that identified any CT operators (CTO) that covered the start and end locations of a user, we were able to show relevant options.
  2. Then, we looked to find a way to identify CT services that met a user’s preferred travel times.
    As CTOs tend not to run to specific timetables, we needed to develop a way to match user time preferences with operator availability. We planned to overcome this by simply letting the operators specify in their data the dates and times that their service was typically available and then, when users searched, they would see the services that matched whatever times they had specified.
  3. Finally, we wanted to let users know what prices, restrictions of use, or what additional services are available on a given CT service.
    There are a wide range of differing prices, restrictions and additional services available depending on each CT provider and the funding rules. Rather than try to design a very technical search system to cater for all these options, we decided that at this stage we should simply let the operator specify their own detailed information and criteria. We would then show this in the search results and let the user determine which service was the best for them.
Happy CT app

Picture showing how the CTO area covering a user’s start and end locations appears in results

What did you learn along the way and what would you do differently?

AC: While we did not manage to achieve all that we set out to do in the project, we did learn a lot and are keen to share our lessons with others.

The areas of lessons learnt fall into various categories. In particular, we learnt about:

The importance of overcoming all the key challenges for project success – not just the technical challenge.

  • Overcoming the technical challenge was critical in the success of this project, but it is pointless unless we are also able to get enough CT providers and users to test, then adopt the service, having found it had value to them. In hindsight, we should have done more face-to-face research and prototyping to ascertain if and where there was consumer (and CTO) demand before investing in more expensive technical development.
  • We have not yet got the pilot to the point where we could demonstrate cost savings via increased utilisation rates and reduced the cost/trip/user. So, the project risks are still high without evidence of proven value.

Selecting and maintaining the right project team, stakeholders and testers and then ensuring they each have the necessary resources at all times during the project.

  • It is really important to try to keep the same team working on the project and for those people to be the right people. The project suffered from three of the original project team at Liftshare leaving, then the pilot location changed and the team at the new pilot changed too. Plus, the team at the county council who we first met about the project also moved roles! With each change, momentum and knowledge was lost and it took a while to get back up to speed.
  • In hindsight, I feel we should have ensured we had actual CT users in the project team from the start and not to assume that we could rely on any 3rd party (CT provider or council) to deliver any critical element. This project is not a core part of their role. Whilst their input would have been very welcome, if we had planned to test and learn without relying on them, then we could have delivered things much quicker – so long as we had more real CT user input. Real users are essential to avoid us making incorrect assumptions.

Developing the right MVP (minimum viable product) to enable rapid test and learn.

  • This was an area of the project that went relatively well. The original plan was to incorporate CT journeys within Liftshare results but we quickly realised that the MVP would be better placed within our myPTP (my personal travel plan) tool:
    • myPTP was designed to aggregate and display data – so integrating CT results was much simpler than if we had tried to amend Liftshare.com.
    • The myPTP tool can be placed as a widget into third party sites so we were able to test the service in a live environment easily.
    • myPTP includes a follow up survey tool, so gaining user feedback on how useful the service was would have been straightforward, as soon as we had more people using it.
  • Obtaining route information was relatively straight forward. It could either be sourced from the provider or gathered through researching the information on their websites.
  • We learnt that there is a reasonable degree of flexibility of areas covered by providers over and above what they promote. We therefore introduced a ‘buffer zone’ around each shape provided in order to allow for this.
  • Fare information can vary dependent on a number of factors such as length of journey, banding etc. There was no easy way to show users an exact price so we opted to show the key information and provide the contact details for users to ask the providers directly.
myPTP widget

An example of the myPTP widget being included on a hospital website.

myPTP result

An example myPTP result showing CT alongside other travel options.

How legislation changes can come out of the blue and impact a whole industry.

During the project there was a shock announcement about new legislation that required CT operators to hold a public service vehicle (PSV) licence. This change prevents CTOs from operating services under less onerous Section 19 and Section 22 permits. There was concern across the market that the changes would add significant cost, paperwork and limitations on many CTOs – and many of these are small operations that simply did not have the resources, capability or desire to handle the changes. The shockwave from this announcement impacted the whole sector and we found that there was very little interest in focusing resources on new innovative solutions.

We were not used to working in a sector reliant on securing funding, rather than one that needs to be self-financing.

One surprising insight was that the nature of the funding regime, whereby funds were not guaranteed from one year to the next, meaning that operators were surprisingly nervous about promoting their services and driving up demand when they were not sure if they would have the funds to meet that demand in the future. Additional passengers appeared to be seen as bringing additional costs rather than bringing extra revenue.

How the knowledge gained during the project is helpful in supporting other areas of our work.

Developing a service that enabled flexible CT services to appear in online journey planners has helped open up the possibility of including other flexible services such as taxis, work place transport, and school transport into online tools. This is potentially an exciting area for us to explore further. Many of the other lessons learned will be helpful in continuously improving how we undertake future projects.

The amount of funding needed to deliver the objectives may be very different from what was first calculated.

When we estimated the time and resources needed we understood that there would be a margin of error due to the nature of working with a new service in a new market. We identified a number of potential risks but had not expected so many of them to be realised or for so many new ones to crop up. With the benefit of hindsight, we should have either limited the scope of the original plan or to have increased the budget to enable us to throw more resources at it.

What’s next for HappyCT?

JS: Now that we have the tool in place, we’re going to continue engaging with existing and new organisations where community transport is an important factor when it comes to travel within the community. Having completed user testing, we’ll also look to advise operators on how they can best engage with their target audience.

We’d also like to review the requirement to develop the Liftshare notification tool to let operators share seat availability with users so we can track and map capacity planning. This could then evolve into enabling users to use the Liftshare booking tool to book and pay for community transport seats online. The intention is to reach out to our wider local authority client base and explore how they could benefit from the software and website widget. Longer term, there’s the potential for all community transport providers to be on the platform, so we will be able to support those in need on a national basis.

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Author

Jenni Lloyd

Jenni Lloyd

Jenni Lloyd

Programme Manager, Innovation Programmes

Jenni is a Programme Manager working on the ShareLab Fund.

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Alice Casey

Alice Casey

Alice Casey

Head of New Operating Models

Alice leads on a portfolio of work looking at how technology is transforming communities and civic life.

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