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Our work with Daft as a Brush

Cancer treatment is already a lot for patients to deal with, and having to worry about transport to and from the hospital only adds to the stress. Luckily, local charity Daft as a Brush is here to help.

What is Daft as a Brush?

Daft as a Brush was set up in 2010 by former hotelier Brian Burnie to get cancer patients to and from the hospital easily, and it has now helped thousands of people in the North East. The charity owns a fleet of custom-fitted ambulances, and organises volunteers to drive registered patients to and from their appointments each week.

Coordinating the volunteers, ambulances and patients is a complex job. In the early days, this was done manually on paper; obviously a huge undertaking for the charity. It would take a skilled person several days to get right. 

How did Transcendit help?

A few years ago, Transcendit was approached to develop a web-based system to help manage volunteers, ambulances and patients, and the resulting transport schedule. This covered details like which volunteers are available on what days, when a patient had their appointments, helping various parts of communication with key parties, and building and editing the ambulance schedules. 

We also tried to automate the planning process, so that Daft as a Brush didn't need to spend a long time organising and coordinating the journeys each week. It was a complex problem to solve in a short space of time, so the aim was to create something to help with the planning process rather than a comprehensive solution. 

As such, the version that Transcendit developed is a fair starting point for a week's schedules. But the fact remains that expert human knowledge often produces better results, and so the web application supports the finer adjustments.The planning process can then be completed in a few hours rather than a few days, so for Daft as a Brush this was a definite improvement over pen and paper!

However, we still think that more improvements can be made to reduce the need for manual adjustment, as well as make the automation better. Daft as a Brush is planning to roll out their services in other parts of the UK, and having a finely tuned system would make this expansion much easier for them. To this end, we've been reaching out to other developers and academics to get them interested in this scheduling problem.

So what's the problem? 

Consider parcel deliveries. The stock of parcels start at some delivery hub, and need to be delivered to addresses near that hub. There are a number of delivery vans and their drivers, and each van has a limit on what it can carry. Parcel delivery firms need to create routes for a number of the vans so that everything gets delivered on time, with the least amount of driving possible. There are various established solutions to this kind of problem.

The Daft as a Brush problem differs in several ways from the simple delivery scenario. Their work is very time sensitive; patients need to arrive at hospital around their advised appointment time, without having to sit waiting too long. They also need to take into account how long it takes to drive from the patient's house to hospital and back. Managing the locations of ambulances is another important detail.

In certain cases (pre-COVID), they can also transport two or three patients simultaneously, if their appointment times overlap and the routes are similar. If an ambulance is used for several groups of patients during a day, there needs to be enough time to drop off one group before travelling to pick up the next group.

Selecting volunteers also presents challenges; selecting reasonably close volunteers cuts down on driving time, but varying the volunteers used allows everyone to help. Finally, quality of service matters: it's not just a matter of minimising the driving distance. Patients travelling with Daft as a Brush appreciate the companion aspect of their service.

An undergraduate student from Durham University is currently looking at aspects of the problem for her final year project, and we look forward to seeing what she discovers.

How can I help?

If you're interested in the work of Daft as a Brush please visit their website. You can find out more about their work, how to apply as a volunteer driver or companion, and set up a regular donation.

If you'd like to have a go at solving Daft as a Brush's problem, we'd love that! You can see the technical stuff here.

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