These included two aspects related with public transport operations in which VoxPop would aim to address data gaps: the provision of information to support the navigation support tool for vulnerable city users; and the collection of feedback from public transport customers. Whilst these activities may be rather exceptional in the framework of the VoxPop project, the methodology to address them was not, placing users at the core of the development process.
Much of the work on these two activities was started in early 2020, which led to an unexpected challenge: how to engage users in the context of a pandemic and social distancing? A different approach was established for each activity.
In the support to the development of a navigation support tool for vulnerable city users a four-step method was applied, consisting of: i) a review of bibliography; ii) user research; iii) user journey and iv) benchmarking of digital support tools. This activity was led by EMEL – Lisbon’s mobility company, which has extensive experience of user engagement in relation to soft mobility and parking. The bibliography review, combined documents focusing on local insights – such as Lisbon’s pedestrian accessibility plan – and the analysis of outcomes of other EU initiatives – such as the MOVE, TRIPS and SIMON projects, which all included partners from Lisbon. The user research was largely based on semi-structured interviews with vulnerable city users or their caretakers, focusing on people with visual impairment and users of wheelchairs. In these interviews a deep understanding of users’ mobility and their interaction with public transport systems was achieved, which proved to be a critical component to identify challenges and needs. The user journey was then used to cross the information collected in the interviews with the actual public transport service offering. This was particularly useful to depict opportunities for improvement within the current services and led to the identification of possible quick wins. The benchmarking exercise was used to provide insights on the current offer of digital navigation tools. An important conclusion from this phase was the existence of several offerings in the market that meet some of the user needs, suggesting a need to focus not only on the development of a new tool but also on the process to make more data available, which is actually well aligned with the initial ‘project spirit’.
Concerning the public transport users’ feedback tool, a 3-step methodology was implemented: i) desk research, ii) recruitment and iii) users’ engagement with focus groups, interviews, and workshops. There are notorious similarities with the approach for the vulnerable users’ navigation tool activity, including the need to prepare a thorough assessment of existing feedback tools and systems. Another key element was the effort placed on recruitment of end-users to engage, in this case with a population group that is bigger and more diverse. Then, also similarly, the work included a deep dive with each selected user, with their involvement in workshops, interviews and focus group. This work was led by Beta-i, which fostered an innovative approach as users were engaged directly by the project but not by a specific mobility operator, allowing them to focus on their overall mobility needs and not on a specific part of their trips. Another distinctive element that is worth underlining refers to the role of the public transport operator more engaged in the activity, in this case CARRIS. Because the ‘target’ of the feedback relies within the operator itself several meetings and activities were organized to ensure that there was a combined assessment of user needs, i.e., which feedback people want to give and how, and the understanding of operators’ needs, i.e., which feedback can be useful for the operator. From the combination of these two aspects, one lands on the area where development activities shall focus.
Of course, these user needs processes are just the start of the road towards implementing both tools and starting to address the data gaps that were firstly identified. However, some recommendations or conclusions can already be made, in particular with reference the impact of the COVID-19 in this process. The first refers to the increased focus on recruitment. Because it was more challenging to engage people there was a need to better select which people to involve in the process. This led to a much better understanding of the research problems, that proved to strongly benefit the outcome. We recommend that in future occasions substantial effort is placed on user recruitment, regardless of the hopeful phase-out of social distancing measures, because it seems to increase effectiveness and efficiency of the user needs assessment process. A second aspect was that less people was involved overall but a more detailed work was done with each user. Of course, addressing more users would deliver a more representative sample and increase the surveys’ quantitative performance. However, for the purpose of this project that was rather exploratory and aimed mostly to support the identification of requirements for the implementation of two digital tools, the sense was that having a deeper engagement of users, even if more qualitative, proved to be an approach we would recommend in future occasions.
A final word would go to the exploitation of links with other EU projects and activities. CARRIS engagement in the ENERQI project years ago, even if it wasn’t even a partner, was useful to frame the approach towards user feedback, and facilitated the start of the activities. The complementary of the work of VoxPop on the development of the navigation tool for people with vulnerabilities with the ongoing work in the framework of Horizon 2020 project. TRIPS is another example of this ‘network effect’. These are examples of how collaboration between projects can be used not only to the internal benefit of each project, but to really improve service to users. At the end of the day, they are the ‘core’ of all these initiatives.