By Taylor Klocke

NCMM and Allen County, Kansas

Oct. 24, 2019

Earlier this year, the National Center for Mobility Management (NCMM) announced five winners of their Community Mobility Design Challenge 2019 Planning Grants. These grants are given to communities that are seeking innovative ways to address the particular mobility challenges experienced by low-income community members for whom a lack of transportation is an obstacle to the pursuit of economic, health, and social well-being. More information on the grants can be found here.

One of the five teams awarded is based in Allen County, Kansas and is led by Thrive Allen County. This team chose to focus on addressing “health and well-being.” Specifically, this team is looking to find solutions for missed or late medical appointments. After being selected as a winner, the team set up their kick-off meetings with NCMM staff. At these meetings, NCMM travel to the community and begin the human-centered design thinking process with the team; a process that will put the end user of the solution to their challenge first. I was invited to join NCMM staff on the trip. It was an opportunity to learn more about rural communities and the design-thinking process.

Some background on Thrive Allen County: they are a 501(c)3 corporation that provide a new model of rural revitalization that works to harness the strengths of local residents in building healthier, more vibrant communities. Previously, they have been a recipient of a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant and instituted a bike/ped trail system throughout the county, among many other projects.

Last week, Amy Conrick and I flew to Kansas City, Mo., to begin the kick-off meeting with the team. We got into town a day before the meeting; giving us the opportunity to learn more about the culture and the region. To say Kansas City loves their sports would be an understatement. The majority of KC Streetcars we saw were wrapped in Chief’s photos (shown below).

We woke up bright and early the morning of Oct. 16 and drove two hours south to Allen County, Kansas. The drive was absolutely beautiful. It’s hard not to feel at peace when you’re surrounded for hundreds of miles by fields. About 45 minutes outside the county, we started spotting windmills and farm houses. After a quick detour through the windmills, we noticed that all of the houses were spaced about 10-15 miles apart. We thought to ourselves, “what happens in an emergency? How could any of these people get to the hospital?” The closer we got to the town of Iola, houses were getting closer together and we spotted store fronts.

The NCMM kick-off meeting with Thrive Allen County took place at the Allen County Regional Hospital. The hospital was built in 2013 and is one of the few hospitals for a few hundred miles. Sitting at the hospital is a small 20-ft vehicle, unable to be used due to “incentivizing” laws. There is no public transit available in the county, with the exception of the “65+ bus” (requiring three-day’s notice and strict eligibility criteria). Immediately, we understood Allen County’s challenge of getting people to necessary medical appointments.

The first meeting we were to have with the team was the “sensemaking” workshop. At this starting point, we wanted to help the team narrow down on their challenge and identify a population that was most affected by it. Joining us for the first meeting was staff from Thrive Allen County, along with local health care providers and mental health professionals. As noted earlier, NCMM uses the design-thinking process when working with these grantee teams. We began the day by reminding the team that at any point throughout the day, it was critical for them to write down on a post-it note anything they thought was imperative to the challenge or the possible solution. For example, we asked each person in the room to discuss their ethnographic interviews they had done prior to us visiting. One person discussed that one patient didn’t have a smart phone. That would be something critical to note on a post-it. By the end of the day, the hope is that enough of these post-it notes are created and we are able to find “insights” from them.

We asked the team to work through a number of important first steps to best flush out their challenge. We knew that transportation was the biggest hurdle, but where was it the biggest hurdle? To whom? And why? Through many design-thinking exercises, the team was able to determine that chronic patients living in rural areas were the most vulnerable population, and the one that would be most positively impacted by the team’s future solution.

To get to this, the team had to hold ethnographic interviews, create personas, breakdown individual barriers to transportation (lack of funding, distance, etc.) and create “insights” from their clusters of post-it notes formed throughout the day. Each person participating in the meeting built off the ideas of another, creating strong concepts.

Now that the team has determined the who, what and why, Amy and I will soon be going back to Kansas and led them through an “idea generation” workshop. At these workshops, there will be facilitated discussions geared towards concept creations and possible solutions.

We left the meeting incredibly satisfied. The team had pulled strong concepts and insights from their discussions. It will be exciting to meet with them again and start working towards community solutions.

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The Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) and its members believe that mobility is a basic human right. From work and education to life-sustaining health care and human services programs to shopping and visiting with family and friends, mobility directly impacts quality of life.