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Software Supports Volunteer Transportation

Date:
September 17, 2020
Topics:
ITS, Resources, Transit

Volunteer transportation management is fundamentally different from managing volunteers who are contractors or employees, says Volunteer Transportation Center Inc. (VTC) Executive Director Sam Purington.[i] VTC provides essential mobility services in Northern New York and in New Hampshire using only volunteers. VTC is a nonprofit leader in its coverage area, breaking down transportation barriers for the most vulnerable populations, having completed 5.7 million miles driven on over 158,000 one-way trips in 2018. A staff of 29 individuals manage a mission-driven volunteer team of over 350.  VTC provides two categories of transportation, (1) contracted trips that are arranged and reimbursed by an agency or insurer (Fidelis, Nascentia, Medicaid, and others), and (2) trips funded by the donations of the local communities the volunteers serve.  Volunteers use their own vehicles and receive reimbursement for miles traveled.[ii]

Project Purposes

Off-the-shelf software exists for tracking rides, but it does not account for the human interaction and social capital needed for volunteer management. Without a readymade software solution, VTC brought two developers on board in 2017 to create software built for volunteer centric transportation options.[iii]  The software tracks origins, destinations, and times for the trips, along with volunteer availability and assistive route design to coordinate trips and maximize efficiency. The software also records the funding source for each trip. Important for VTC’s mobility model, the software also includes volunteer credentialing controls (such as tracking background checks and vehicle inspections, vehicle registration, completed orientation, signed handbook, and any training that the volunteer needs to complete). For example, VTC’s trips include transporting children in foster care, so volunteers that transport children must attend training on installing and using car seats among other classes. In addition to tracking information about trips and volunteers, the software also alerts clients when their ride is approaching. Alerts can be delivered by text or email to clients themselves or others who book transportation for clients, such as a case manager at an assisted living facility.[iv] 

As of mid-2019, 240 volunteers are using the new software application, which may grow as funding allows and as volunteers become more comfortable shifting away from using paper records. VTC has issued tablets to most of these volunteers, but volunteers who have a smartphone and an adequate data plan (typical usage is 500 mb per month) can add the app to their own personal device.[v] 

Usability was central to the software development project from the start. VTC hired two individuals as developers who already had some transportation experience. They used site visits and phone calls to learn the requirements, terminology, and business practices of providing volunteer transportation in rural areas in order to build an application that addressed compliance and privacy, tracked the right indicators, and maintained human interaction with the volunteers rather than automating all of the dispatching functions.[vi] 

A VTC volunteer assists a rider from the vehicle to the door of their destination. Image courtesy VTC

Volunteers not only provide rides but are also critical data collectors, responsible for tracking the rides they provide to clients. The average age of the VTC volunteer pool is about 60, with some individuals who are eager technology adopters and many who are less comfortable with new technologies. VTC reached out to the volunteers least interested in transitioning away from paper records to guide the development of the app. This focus on user experience has been successful; engaging volunteers who might otherwise be reluctant to change helped to ensure that they would have a user-friendly interface to report information about their rides and receive reimbursement. “Now, people will move from paper to digital and never want to go back. In fact, our bigger challenge in communicating with volunteers is using email effectively, not the app,” says Purington.[vii]

In addition to the software’s ability to simplify information management about trips and volunteers, VTC is testing additional functionalities that will be deployed over time. For example, a feature being tested in 2019 would use algorithms to automate volunteer assignment, matching up volunteer location with the trip location, as well as the type of vehicle needed (such as wheelchair accessible) and the days and hours of the week that a volunteer is available. Assistive route design is a software feature, with the option to fully automate volunteer assignment once that feature is rolled out. This is expected to help with trip coordination, but it would not replace the work of VTC’s dispatch staff in connecting with volunteers by phone. Purington says, “Streaming an assigned trip directly to the tablets is not the right way to work with our volunteers. Automating volunteer assignments will allow our dispatchers do things in a more efficient way. Then dispatchers can spend time on phone interactions that build the connection volunteers have to the organization, so that volunteers are willing to provide a ride when asked. Volunteer management is based on knowing each other.” Once the person has accepted a request from a dispatcher to provide a ride, they can receive trip information through the app.[viii] 

Outcomes

The new software is already improving some metrics and is expected to help improve others as it becomes more fully implemented. With the features in use so far, volunteers are reporting that the app is easy to use and simplifies their recordkeeping role. For VTC staff, the app streamlines data tracking and compliance. Over time, VTC will track additional metrics using the software regarding efficiency and effectiveness. These include deadhead miles driven without a client on board (volunteers are reimbursed for mileage to and from their home), missed appointments, and near misses when a client barely arrives in time to keep their appointments.[ix]

VTC conducts outreach to other regions and organizations looking to create a volunteer transportation program. The “VTC in a Box” program provides tools for running a volunteer transportation program; guidance during development and implementation; training for program staff, transportation coordinators, and volunteers; as well as access to its proprietary software.[x] “VTC in a Box” has been provided to other areas of New York and other locations where there is interest in improving mobility through volunteer transportation. VTC is also working with the non-profit MOVE in Stanislaus County, California, to develop a volunteer program in the rural Central Valley area of the state. Once it is implemented, the volunteer program will be brought into a mobility app that integrates public transportation, volunteer transportation, and other available services to allow clients to request rides. The app is being developed by professionals at the University of California-Davis.[xi] 

Resources

Beginning several years prior to software development, Purington says that VTC negotiated a higher rate for its transportation contracts, working with funders to explain that transitioning to digital recordkeeping would require effort and expense. VTC was able to build up enough of a fund balance to support the development, testing, and deployment of the app.[xii] Having developers on the VTC team will not be a long-term situation. Although new functionality and support over time will be needed, the developers will spin out the software as a social enterprise after it is deployed more fully by VTC. That way, the social enterprise can provide the software to other volunteer transportation programs at a low per-ride fee.  This future process will enable nonprofits and other organizations with minimal budgets for transportation can access the app without large upfront investments in purchasing a license or an expensive subscription model. VTC can continue to focus on its mission of providing mobility and avoid having developers on staff permanently, without spending time marketing or supporting other organizations’ use of the software.[xiii]

Training for volunteers and administrative staff can be incorporated into orientation procedures without much additional time investment. Case managers or others booking rides can access a user-friendly website to book trips with minimal training needed.  Riders receive email or text communications about their rides via the app. There is no current need for riders to interface directly with the app itself, although that may change in the future.[xiv]

The tablets issued to volunteers cost about $100 to acquire, including needed accessories such as a protective case, charger, and all associated cords. In addition, VTC pays about $12 per month for each tablet to have a cellular data plan. Some volunteers use their own smart phone and have an adequate data plan, increasing the number of volunteers using the app without additional cost to VTC.[xv] For more information on the VTC, visit https://volunteertransportationcenter.org.


[i] Personal communication with Sam Purington, September 2019

[ii] Sam Purington (2019). Volunteer Transportation Center, Inc., presentation given at On the Road to Prosperity Virtual Peer Exchange #5: How Transportation Technologies Are Meeting Mobility and Economic Development Needs in Rural America

[iii] Purington (2019)

[iv] Personal communication with Sam Purington, September 2019

[v] Personal communication with Sam Purington, September 2019

[vi] Personal communication with Sam Purington, September 2019

[vii] Personal communication with Sam Purington, September 2019

[viii] Personal communication with Sam Purington, September 2019

[ix] Personal communication with Sam Purington, September 2019

[x] Purington (2019)

[xi] Personal communication with Sam Purington, September 2019

[xii] Personal communication with Sam Purington, September 2019

[xiii] Personal communication with Sam Purington, September 2019

[xiv] Personal communication with Sam Purington, September 2019

[xv] Personal communication with Sam Purington, September 2019

This report was delivered to the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2020. It was primarily authored by NADO Program Manager Rachel Beyerle and NADO Associate Director Carrie Kissel. Many transportation agency staff and others assisted with this project in a variety of ways. We offer deep and heartfelt thanks to all the individuals who have provided information and images, consented to be interviewed, and offered editorial guidance in support of this research. This work is supported by the U.S. Department of Transportation under requisition number HOIT190194PR. Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. DOT or the NADO Research Foundation.