Ben Kaube, 26, is studying in his final year for a PhD in quantum mechanics at Imperial College London. He’s also the co-creator of a new app which allows frustrated commuters to claim fare refunds for lengthy train delays. His inspiration? “Hundreds and hundreds of hours of my life wasted on delayed trains. I just thought: there’s got to be a better way.”
After Kaube first got the idea about a year ago, the new TrainTrick app launched last month, and Kaube says they’ve already processed claims from thousands of people. It’s a simple concept: users upload a photo of their ticket if a train has been delayed, and Kaube and his colleague do the rest, taking a 10% cut of any refund (though it is free until October).
Kaube says the true purpose of the app is to apply pressure on train franchise operators to invest and improve their service for customers. Users are given the option to donate their refund to a JustGiving cause.
“Older generations often say our generation is apathetic, we just do hashtag activism,” he says. “I think that’s because they often don’t understand that the way to get things done has changed. Now you can have a much bigger impact with an app than you could do by other means. Where before you might write a letter, now building an app has been a more effective way of getting momentum behind an idea and support for your cause.”
Under-35s dominate the market, accounting for over half of app developers in the UK. Although such research doesn’t break down the purpose of these apps, Kaube is far from alone in being a young person designing one to tackle a social issue.
‘Founding a company on your own is incredibly stressful’
Cameron Graham, 21, had a lengthy spell in hospital in 2014. The economics and finance graduate from the University of Strathclyde shared a ward with an elderly dementia patient, and noticed a transformation in his demeanour – becoming happier and calmer – when his granddaughter showed him photographs of his family during visits. Upon leaving hospital, and surprised that nothing like it existed already, Graham established Storii, a platform which allows those in care settings, including carers and families, to log life stories, care plans and even music and videos to aid patients through reminiscence therapy.
The app is now being used in care homes. Graham’s company employs nine staff, and is currently raising £1m of seed funding. He says that being so young was no hindrance. “This isn’t something that comes up very often. To customers, I’m the CEO of a company developing a product they want to use, not a recent graduate.”
That said, it was difficult for him to juggle a thriving business with his degree. “I asked Strathclyde University to defer my studies after third year to work full time on Storii. During third year, I managed to work both on the business and studying, but it wasn’t very healthy and I wouldn’t recommend it. Doing both, especially when founding a company on your own, is incredibly stressful.”
Kaube’s experience has been similar: “it’s been a real challenge trying to balance the two.”
Craig Docherty, 23, then vice-president of Stirling University’s computing club and about to commence a research degree in computing science, responded to a call from the local council for help with its autism strategy. He led a project team, made up of a number of programming students, to create an app that allows people with autism to cope better with life changes. It lets users choose options to reflect how they feel about new situations, such as moving from primary to secondary school, input their likes and dislikes, and outline their preferred method of communication.
It’s already proved popular among a range of council departments, and will fully launch in October to coincide with the its nomination for a prize at the Cosla (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) Excellence Awards.
“I thought it would be a good learning opportunity for our students, and a nice way to do a project with a purpose. So we’re not just sitting confined within the university, [but] doing something that really does make a difference,” Docherty says.
He hopes it can begin a partnership between students and bodies who desperately need their help – “in the first instance, hopefully between students and councils, connecting students with those opportunities. But also it’s a conversation in general about how to digitise services and make lives easier.”
‘Young people are being empowered to tackle problems’
Risha Jindal’s older sister had just moved away to university and didn’t know what to do with the leftover ingredients after cooking. So, a 16-year-old Risha and her sister devised Digimeal, an app which creates recipe ideas when they enter three ingredients they have in their cupboards. It won the £15,000 iDEA award for young digital entrepreneurs in 2014, which funded the app’s creation, and is on course for a full launch within a year.
“There is the positive effect of helping students and teaching them how to cook and giving them ideas but then there’s the other side of trying to reduce food waste by reducing the amount that gets wasted due to a lack of ideas,” explains Jindal, now 19, who has recently completed her first year studying economics and international development at the University of Sussex, where she and her friends use the app.
She thinks such apps are a way of young people being empowered to tackle problems. “It’s our generation trying to help each other rather than leaving it to someone else to look after us… We have this opportunity to be creative and to make our ideas happen. Young people are taking it into their own hands.”