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Like many council functions, if you don't need it, you probably don't notice it. But for those who rely on a community equipment service, it’s a lifeline.

City of Edinburgh Council picks ups and collects tens of thousands of walking sticks, Zimmer frames, bath aids and other items each year.

Keeping up with the workload is a big challenge, but it’s one a winner at last year’s EdinburghApps contest - which offers developers and start-up businesses the chance to work on apps for the Scottish capital - is looking to tackle.

The tool, which has the working title of Osprey, won the health and wellbeing challenge at the contest. It uses artificial intelligence to plot the best route for the vans, so the service becomes faster and more efficient.

It’s now approaching the user testing stage after spending the past year in development.

'Dynamic logistics problem'

Andrew Bone and his company, Airts, entered after coming across information about the service, jointly run with the local NHS, when the council released its data last year.

“They had a huge dynamic logistics problem with all the demands for collection and pick-up,” he says. “They have to cover 100,000 calls per year with 10-12 vans.

“We saw the data and thought there might be a problem. Each van will cover between 15 and 30 calls per day – some items may need fitting, which can take an hour, while just dropping off a walking stick will take a couple of minutes.

“And they’re working with constraints – for safety reasons, only 10 heavy items can be carried each trip, so you have to factor that in.”

It was a tough nut for the council to crack.

“They could see that they could be doing much better - but they didn’t know where to start,” adds Bone. “It’s a complex problem – not just something you can knock up in Excel. The solution was a logistics optimisation system, custom-built to their needs.

EdinburghApps help

“They had been trying a bus route-style system – a couple of days each week they’d head to East Lothian, that sort of thing. But that’s not demand-driven – if that route is half full, the driver still does it. What we’re doing is demand-driven.”

Woking under the banner of the EdinburghApps competition smoothed the way through the council’s internal politics and helped get the app developed, Bone says.

“It was really interesting and useful to see what others came up with,” he says of the event.

The competition runs for even weeks, something Bone – who returned for 2014’s final to talk to this year’s entrants - thinks gives it an advantage over shorter hack events, as it allows time to build working prototypes.

“Many of the entries weren’t made beyond mock-up screen shots,” he recalls. “But others - like us - had built something. The challenge is in what you can achieve in that time.

“There are a lot of hackathons and hack weekends, but you can’t really build meaningful software in that time.”

Once the app launches, Bone and his team will be looking at enhancing and improving the tool for Edinburgh before marketing it to other councils.

“Half of all other councils use the same stock control system, ELMS2, so we’ll be integrating it with that," Bone says.

“There are also lots of other council services that are demand and event-driven, so we’re looking at making it into a generic tool.”

Western Edinburgh Panorama from Edinburgh Castle by SwaloPhoto used under CC BY-NC 2.0.