Oxfam is a registered charity in England and Scotland, originally formed in 1942 to help Greek civilian victims of World War II. To fund its activities, the charity opened its first shop in Oxford in 1948, collecting used clothing, books and bric-a-brac for resale. Over the last sixty years, Oxfam has expanded into a global charity, working on emergency response, development work and campaigning. Finance for Oxfam's work comes through fundraising and trading income, the latter generated through a network of around 650 shops and 1300 donation banks across 33 defined operating areas in the United Kingdom (Oxfam, 2010).

The charity operates a complex reverse logistics process across several separate vehicle fleets, servicing these stores and banks. This enables Oxfam to transport goods, primarily second-hand books and textiles, from banks to stores or processing centres, and to move goods between its stores ('cascading') for resale. The logistics operation involves a centralised vehicle fleet serving the large sections of the network and localised 'man-with-van' operations, targeting specific banks and shops. The former feeds recyclate generated by the stores back into recognised commercial recycling streams and provides the take-back of low-grade clothing to a central sorting facility for separation and onward processing. The latter is very region specific, where paid and sometimes volunteer drivers will service certain shops and banks, whilst also undertaking ad hoc work such as commercial and house collections. The different transport layers work largely in isolation and there is scope to use information communication technologies to enhance their visibility.

Scoping the concept

Oxfam have a complex logistics operation involving many actors across the national, regional and local levels. At the outset of the project, a series of interviews and an expert working group was held of Oxfam area, shop and transport managers to outline the project concepts and understand the key logistical problems that might be addressed.

The discussions with the expert working group showed that:

  • Area managers need to know whether they getting value out of the paid man-with-van and if this resource is being used to its true capabilities? "I've had a driver in place for 17 years and it's a constant battle to get him to change his routes, get information out of him or find out where he is."
  • Being 'reactive' to the fluent needs of the business is important and understanding how schedules could be more tightly organised would be beneficial.
  • Giving the man-with-van driver the visibility of shop/bank servicing needs to enable them to prioritise collection strategy across the local area.
  • Drivers need to know where stock that has been set aside for cascading is actually required (demand hot spots in the area).
  • All parties need to better understand which banks are currently suffering from theft, the patterns of theft and which are potential theft targets to enable collections to be focussed towards those areas.
  • The routine servicing of shops might not always be necessary. If shops reported the numbers of bags (redundant stock and cascade) at the end of each day, the round scheduling could be significantly improved. There will always be variability in how many bags shops generate but problems occur if some shops on a scheduled round generate excessive volume, reducing the vehicle storage capacity to serve the shops scheduled on the end of the round.
  • It would be useful to know how the capacity of the van is changing as it progresses on the round.
  • Some area managers would like to take on more volunteer drivers and having a tool that would enable all parties to visualise theirs and others current and immediate future locations would greatly aid their ability to manage drivers' work activity.

With such a complex, multi-actor supply chain structure, the research challenge was:

  • (1) Developing a simplistic data collection, mining and dissemination tool that can be utilised by all the players involved
  • (2) Designing it in such a way that it provides enhanced visibility of network performance in time and space, improves temporal decision making and fosters greater collaboration between the players without compromising data protection and privacy obligations.

Research questions

  • Could bank/shop collections be undertaken more effectively, and could Oxfam's transport footprint be reduced if there was greater visibility (currently and into the immediate future) between their logistics layers, and more flexibility allowed in terms of who did daily bank/store services?
  • What benefits are there from creating a network 'social community' where driver's collective trajectories can be visualised alongside shop manager's activity and projected needs?
  • How can remote bank and shop monitoring help in optimising Oxfam's collection logistics and in what ways can this lead to more flexible scheduling and improved use of time?


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