A social enterprise that makes “ordinary” public transport something very special

With its new incentive scheme, ABN AMRO is supporting three social start-ups a year to the tune of €10,000 each. The first one to be selected is the start-up behind GoOV, an app allowing people with disabilities to travel by themselves. “For our users, this freedom is a first.”

The new incentive scheme allows ABN AMRO to lend a helping hand to social enterprises. These businesses place a premium on the common good, supported by a solid revenue model. For every social entrepreneur who is a client, ABN AMRO deposits €100 a year into the scheme. Three times a year, the bank donates €10,000 from the fund to a new social enterprise. GoOV (which is short for Go Openbaar Vervoer, or Go Public Transport, in Dutch) is a project launched by Lars Nieuwenhoff, Eljakim Information Technology and Siza. Nieuwenhoff, who used to work as an innovation manager at an organisation serving the needs of disabled people, says he noticed how much individuals with learning disabilities, for instance, want to travel unassisted although it’s far from easy for them. And for the deaf, even a simple train journey can be a major challenge. Nieuwenhoff and his partners have now developed an app to allow all these people to travel unaccompanied. In fact, over 300 people now use the GoOV app to travel every single day. The result is far greater freedom for both users and their carers, as well as a big savings on the cost of special transport.

The app allows people with disabilities to travel by themselves. How did that idea come about?

“Siza, the care organisation I used to work for, aims to help people with disabilities live their lives as independently as possible – in the home and at work, but also in terms of mobility. Mobility can be a tough nut to crack, though. We had the idea to build an app that guides users as they travel by providing them with information tailored to their needs – not just for a bus trip, for example, but also for the walking route to the bus station and the final destination. Today 350 users travel with GoOV every day. Not only has the app given them a huge amount of freedom they’ve never had before, but it’s also helping their parents and carers, who can log in to the GoOV portal to stay informed about the journey in real time.”

How does GoOV work?

“After some training, all users have to do is enter their itineraries and hit the road armed with the GoOV app on their phone. The app gives them information about their journey every step of the way, even in the event of delays or diversions. The itinerary data presented by the app are tailored to the individual needs of users, guiding them from door to door.”

Can you give us an example of how data are tailored to the user’s needs?

“We developed the app based on a wide range of user experiences. For instance, we incorporated the information from Google Street View when the app shows walking routes, but discovered that for many of our users with autism this type of image was actually confusing because a photo taken during the summer won’t always be an accurate representation of the same street in winter. For others, the visual information the app presents works better. There’s one feature which is important to all users, though, and that’s the panic button. This button immediately connects the user with a call centre representative, who can give the user advice on directions (we plan to introduce a chat feature for deaf users in the future) or call a taxi if necessary to get the user to their destination.”

The jury was impressed that the app also helps save on the cost of transport. But how?

“At the moment, people with disabilities often take special taxi buses and are sometimes accompanied by a carer, with the state picking up the tab. Enabling people to travel independently when possible results in a significant decrease in these costs. The municipality covers the cost of the user’s subscription to the GoOV app. In fact, the municipalities of Arnhem, Utrecht and Goeree are actively proposing it to new users. We’re now focusing on other municipalities.”

The jury noted that GoOV had “very realistic expectations for its success”. Can you elaborate on that?

“Social entrepreneurship is about transparency, and that includes expectations. At the moment, 1 million people with disabilities use adapted transport in the Netherlands. In theory, 200,000 of them can travel on their own. We think one to two per cent of this group will be using our app by the end of the year.”

What’s on the horizon for GoOV?

“We’ll break even once we have 1,000 users. Any profits will be put towards developing the app and reducing subscription fees. I aim to deploy GoOV as widely as possible, since the technology has a broad application not just in other countries (we’re exploring our options in Belgium at the moment), but also for other target groups. Examples include seniors who want to travel unassisted well into old age and the children of refugees who don’t speak Dutch yet.”

How will GoOV be putting the funding from the incentive scheme to use?

“We plan to use the money to develop the chat feature so that our deaf users can take full advantage of GoOV.”