As the country gears up to commemorate VE Day, academics at Northumbria University are delighted to have played a vital role in the development of a new smartphone app which helps UK military veterans find support services they need; whether that’s health services, jobs or housing.
The app has been launched by Veterans’ Gateway, a 24-hour service for veterans’ support, and was developed by a partnership between Northumbria University’s Northern Hub for Veterans and Military Families Research and international software company RippleNami, Inc. The Veteran’s Gateway app has been funded by grants from the Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust.
The first of its kind in the UK, the Veterans’ Gateway app provides a comprehensive interactive digital directory of all services available for almost three million veterans across the country.
The fully inclusive and accessible app provides them with the locations of local hospitals, substance abuse clinics and details of how to access education, financial assistance, employment support, housing and shelters – all in the palm of their hands on a smartphone or tablet. It even includes a recently added layer of support for those facing new challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Importantly, the app has been designed to draw anonymised geolocation data on what users are searching for, to help to identify particular issues that may be faced within different regions. This will be used as evidence to show government where funding needs to be invested to improve services for veterans.
The new app builds on the success of the Veterans’ Gateway online directory which was also developed by Northumbria University’s Northern Hub for Veterans and Military Families Research and RippleNami which groups together all NHS facilities and over 2,000 charitable organisations across the country, allowing veterans and their families to access local support as and when it is needed.
Since being set up in 2017, Veterans’ Gateway has received over 47,000 calls and has signposted ex-forces personnel and their families to the wide range of support available to them.
Assistant Director of Veterans’ Gateway, Mark Collins said: “This new app is a great way of enabling the veteran community to find information and gain advice on the go. Our team are here for them 24/7 and this technology means they can access local information quickly or use it to contact the service. By showing them the help and support available locally, it strengthens the fact that Veterans’ Gateway is a key point of contact for veterans and their families.”
Northumbria University and Ripplenami have been working to develop the new app over the last five years. This work is part of a wider ‘Map of Need’ project being led by the Northern Hub for Veterans and Military Families Research, which has been funded by the Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust with grants to date totalling £1.4m.
As well as providing veterans with a much-needed interactive map of all specialist services available to them, the app has also been designed to help service providers to ensure they are offering the support that former UK service men and women want and need by collecting anonymous data about the types of services veterans are searching for and using.
The prefix of the app user’s postcode – such as NW1 – is collected when veterans conduct a search through the app. This detail is then used to identify if the services people are looking for are available in certain regions.
This intelligence will inform national debate and lead to the development of policy recommendations and guidance for improvements to services provision.
Dr Matt Kiernan is an Associate Professor of Mental Health and Veteran Studies at Northumbria University and a former Lieutenant Commander in the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service. He said: “This is the first time that this type of mapping technology has been available on an app. We are proud that through this excellent collaboration we have been able to create something bespoke to the veteran community. It’s a really clever piece of software that will be ground-breaking at an international level and paves the way for mapping veteran and military families’ services worldwide. It will benefit veterans and their families as they use it and it will allow us to better understand the needs of the veteran community across the UK and use that information to develop future services.
“We can now see detail on what people are searching for and what services they subsequently access in different locations – but importantly with absolute anonymity. All we see is the first part of the user’s postcode location, but this means we can analyse variances between what people are looking for and what is available to them locally. If the services they need aren’t available close by then we will now have the evidence to advise government of where it needs to invest to meet these needs.”
The bespoke design of the app has also allowed a rapid, flexible response to the coronavirus pandemic, meaning that Covid-19 specific local support has been added to the platform.
UK veteran Tom Ripley is an MOD Army Welfare Worker who works with serving personnel and families and encourages them to use the app. He said: “Our veterans can face many different problems when they leave the forces, from mental health, alcohol and substance abuse and PTSD to housing and employment issues. The app really is a one-stop shop; you can find all the services you might need in one place. There can be a stigma attached to asking for help and some people are embarrassed to take that first step. Being able to look up support services by themselves at home can make a huge difference – the anonymity is definitely appealing.”
Veterans’ Gateway is delivered by a consortium comprising The Royal British Legion, Poppyscotland, Combat Stress, Connect Assist, the Ministry of Defence and SSAFA, the Armed Forces Charity.