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How Can Disaster Relief be Coordinated to Make it Most Efficient And Effective?

When natural disaster strikes there is always an immediate and immense global outpouring of medical aid, food, supplies and support. Most times, this influx of aid is not accompanied by operational management and coordination through a centralized organization. Too often this results in aid transportation bottle necks, disproportionate supply surpluses, misallocation of resources, distribution delays, etc. All of this can put the most vulnerable disaster victims at greater risk and potentially cost more lives. Is there a better way to coordinate the good will, resources and energy of the global community to more efficiently and effectively bring relief to the victims of disaster?

Photo of Demian Repucci
16 27

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Natural disaster strikes and immediately, from around the world, governments, aid organizations, charities, religious groups, etc. mobilize and send people and resources to the damaged area. Often, the amount of aid coming in at one time overwhelms the local infrastructure and its ability to accept it. Planes are turned away from a crippled airport, or sit on the ground, unable to land or take off in heavy traffic without a working control tower. Once there, supplies are unloaded without a clear understanding of where they will be stockpiled, how they will be distributed or if they are actually needed at all. A shipment of donated clothing may be blocking the arrival of urgently needed medical triage units. Cases of clean water might pile up at the airport because there are no available vehicles to distribute it to refugee camps. Food is arriving to refugee camps which is good, but the victims also need tents and medical supplies to treat the injured. When will they arrive?
All of these problems and many more can arise when multiple governments and organizations react to a natural disaster. Aid reaches those in need but sometimes not as quickly as it should and sometimes it is not really the thing the victims need most. Is there a better way to organize and coordinate disaster relief to make the process as efficient and effective as possible?


One inspiration that comes to mind is a wedding gift registry that couples in the U.S. make of things they would like to receive on the occasion of their wedding. The gift registry is posted online at the websites of the stores the couple registered at. Guests buy gifts from the couple's list and check off what they purchased so that other guests will not buy more of that thing than the couple wants. The couple hopefully then ends up with most everything that they wished for and no duplicates or surplus of one or two items. Could this idea be applied to disaster relief? Maybe one central organization such as the UN could maintain a master list of needed supplies for a given disaster. Donating governments and aid organizations then can reference and check off as they deliver portions of the aid. The list could include not only items such as bottled water, tents and medical supplies, but also service requirements such as machinery to clear rubble, trucks to deliver supplies, engineers and health professionals. The list could be amended in real time as needs become apparent and aid organizations could tailor their subsequent deliveries accordingly. Instead of a disaster relief guessing game that results in surplus and distribution bottle necks, maybe some sort of open-source master list could be tailored on the fly and in real time to more efficiently address the needs of each particular disaster relief effort.


What other ways might disaster relief be systematized to make it a smoother process that helps as many victims as possible as quickly as possible?

16 comments

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DeletedUser

hey, could we get rid of all the plastic bottle waste in desaster relieve? just look at the picture above: even there helpers import tons of plastic waste to rural areas with each plane load.

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Photo of Demian Repucci

Sabra, great point! Displacement and refugee camps are a very serious problem. Not only do neighboring countries such as Pakistan in relation to Afghanistan and Kenya and Ethiopia in relation to Somalia feel the burden of thousands of refugees flooding across their borders but also the sad fact that refugee camps are quick to succumb to the spread of disease, crime, rape, etc. Right now Haiti is suffering from the outbreak of cholera And this is almost a year after the earthquake that devastated that country. Which brings up another grim fact in that on top of all the suffering that the victims of whatever disaster have already gone through, refugee camps tend to also suffer from inertia. Once they are in place it is very hard to get families back to their original homes. So, yes, the more efficient and effective a disaster relief effort is, using Ushahidi, something like it, or a combination of methods, the less victims may have to be relocated to refugee camps and face an even more uncertain future.
Thanks again Sabra!

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DeletedUser

What do you think of our new solution for reusable, rapid response emergency relief housing: http://www.reactionhousingsystem.com/

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DeletedUser

What do you think of our new solution for reusable, rapid response emergency relief housing: http://www.reactionhousingsystem.com/

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DeletedUser

Each days news gives more reasons why we desperately need solutions in this area. 800,000 in Haiti still in " tents".

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DeletedUser

We're trying to change that with http://www.reactionhousingsystem.com/

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DeletedUser

Congratulations on making it all the way to the final 9 on the agenda!!

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Photo of Demian Repucci

Meena! Thanks for the heads up and the link! How funny! It seems the city got caught on it's heels by the snow storm and left lots of neighborhoods unplowed. So people started shoveling each other out. Almost all of the 20 inches of snow has melted already but it caused an uproar while it lasted. The mayor had to publicly apologize for not getting all of New York's streets plowed right away.
Definitely not as life threatening as something like the Haiti earthquake but it shows how adaptable Ushahidi is.
Thanks again!
And Happy New Year!

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DeletedUser

I applauded and evaluated your concept. While it's a compelling issue, I feel that a humane global system of technology and resources would quickly solve it.

If I could have built on this, I would have.

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Photo of Demian Repucci

Thao, thanks for your comment! Yes, I need to spend some more time with Ushahidi to truly understand it but from what I can tell at this point it looks really great. Definitely very usable for situations I am thinking about. My main question that I would like to explore further is it's usefulness on a coordination level from the standpoint of the multitude of incoming independent relief organizations. Can each of them fully utilize Ushahidi to orchestrate their movements with those of all the other aid groups to maximize efficiency and effectiveness, responding to the information they are receiving from on the ground? But from what I can tell so far, this capability is either available already or easily developed within the Ushahidi framework. Very cool.
Thanks again Thao!

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DeletedUser

Another area that this concept will help with is reducing refugee stress in surrounding populations. Coordination of aid means less people have to be displaced long distances from their home place, and the demand for food and other resources doesn't destabilize the economy of host populations as much.

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Photo of Demian Repucci

Sabra, thanks for the comment! Yes, the increasing global population does bring with it more more dangers and challenges. The world's urban centers are much more populated, and densely populated at that, than ever before. And with large portions of those urban populations living in substandard housing, many people are left more vulnerable than they should be. I agree with you that a more efficient system of disaster response will have direct impact on the lives of the victims. As we saw in Haiti, the survival of people trapped in the rubble of collapsed buildings was utterly dependent on how quickly relief workers could be mobilized and get to them. One thing I like very much about the Ushahidi system that Meena brought to my attention, is the ability of trapped people to text their location and condition to the system. Rescue workers monitoring the map generated by the texted data can then more efficiently target areas with the most trapped people which would enable them to hopefully save more lives more quickly.
Thanks again for your comment!

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Photo of Meena Kadri

Indeed Demian: Ushahidi is used in both those ways. One of the things I like about Ushahidi is that it facilitates P2P, collaborative networks which often work more efficiently than single organisations. Frontline SMS and Samasource have also been doing good work along these lines at sites of disaster. I feel that innovation for disaster relief needs to include acknowledgment of the power and opportunity in P2P networks – both digital and otherwise.

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DeletedUser

Good stuff as always Meena. Thank you!

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Photo of Demian Repucci

Meena! Thanks for the tip! How did I not see Ushahidi?! It is amazing! The story you linked to is here: http://www.newsweek.com/blogs/techtonic-shifts/2010/03/03/ushahidi-technology-saves-lives-in-haiti-and-chile.html# in case anyone missed it. Ushahidi's use and adaptation to the earthquake situation in Haiti was really great. I am sure I do not understand completely how it was utilized but I think it would be great if it could be used in both directions. From one perspective, victims could use it to report their medical need, location, an emergency, etc. so that a working map of situational need could be established and monitored. But also from the other side Ushahidi could be utilized by incoming aid organizations and rescue workers to notify other aid organizations of their contributions and capabilities. Aid organizations could post the supplies, food, equipment, etc. that they have brought in. They could also give information on their location, the personnel they have on their team, their mobility, established nodes of distribution, any immediate need in their current location, etc., etc. All of this information from every aid group could be aggregated to form a continually updating map of relief work being done, current clear lines of transportation, points of distribution, areas of specific need, etc. This could greatly help inform other aid organizations on what is needed at the moment and how best their available resources could be put to use.
I could go on and on... but I love it. Thanks again for alerting me to Ushahidi. I actually think that it could be beautifully developed to address my concept on utilizing cell phones to gather real-time health data in the developing world http://tinyurl.com/2vspwd8 I will go there now to tie it in...

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DeletedUser

This is a most needed concept Demian. In our current human degraded environment with such a quickly growing human population, we are bound to have even more disasters in the future. Coordinating and systematizing disaster relief will enable us to greatly reduce wastage of resources and human lives.