Archive for February, 2013

By Tim Russell

I recently started working with the World Food Programme (WFP) in Khartoum, Sudan. The project we are collaborating on is designed to build a predictive model that can be used to assist with voucher programming as WFP considers expanding the percentage of food assistance fulfilled with vouchers. The plan is for me to split time between Khartoum and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where I’m currently living with my family.

In December I was able to spend three weeks with WFP in Sudan. I experienced normal “working a new country” issues such as how to get around without a car, should I flag down that rickshaw, inability to speak the language, and gaining access to local currency while facing US economic sanctions and high inflation.

The sanctions render credit cards useless and force you to carry cash into the country. In the three weeks I was first there, the unofficial exchange rate dropped  by 10%. I quickly learned to exchange small amounts to reduce losses.

After a few starts and stops, security cleared a trip for me to visit the North Darfur office in El Fasher. I was cleared to stay in the guesthouse, visit the office, and go to a camp in the city limits. This trip was the best part of my visit to Sudan.  I was able to talk to people redeeming vouchers and traders providing critical food commodities. It felt as if the traders enjoyed explaining how their operations worked. I was also able to spend time with fantastic WFP staff that built and maintained the successful voucher program in El Fasher – professionals through and through. To top it all off, the cook at the guesthouse in El Fasher is known as the best in WFP and put the restaurants near my hotel in Khartoum to shame. We even had fresh baked cookies.

Things I learned during this trip to Sudan…

1) I am a distraction, no matter how much I try not to be. In the past, while working on network optimization at Pepsi, I had to make time for consultants in my schedule. Now I am the one asking others to put aside their work to help me do mine.

2) WFP has supply chain thinking in its DNA. It was refreshing to ask questions about transportation and warehousing and not have people blankly stare back at you. Everyone from human resources to drivers understand the importance of a supply chain frame of mind.

3) It gets COLD in Darfur at night – extra blankets and a room heater kind of cold.

4) Khartoum is very friendly, and no one I spoke to held me, as a US citizen, personally responsible for US sanctions.

5) Darfur is beautiful. It is a desert but with wild cereals growing after the rains and black rocky hills.

6) I was struck by how long people have been living in the camps outside El Fasher and how permanent they looked. To my untrained eye, they appeared as a suburb of the city. Houses made of mud brick are surrounded by well-established hospitals, thriving schools with kids running all around, and active markets inside the camp.

I will be heading back to Sudan soon to continue the research project. Next we will focus on data gathering. I hope get out of Khartoum and see more of Sudan, specifically the growing regions around Gedarif. I also am looking forward to talking to more people involved in the food value chain. Those conversations have been my favorite part of the work to date. Everyone has been excited to share his or her expertise.


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By Julia Moline

When you read an article or hear a story or see firsthand how hard it is to manage information after a disaster, it’s tempting to think that if only we had the right systems, all of our problems would go away. Technology can achieve amazing things. We can use aerial imagery to allocate response teams; we can trace tweets to find people trapped in a building; we can share information with people all over the world over computers and mobile devices. So why can’t we make this work?

The first hindrance is money, which can be a large barrier for non-profits. There are also number of issues that technology itself cannot address. These challenges are especially pronounced in areas that bring a lot of different kinds of responding groups together, including anywhere voluntary aid meets government response.

1. Different groups need systems for different reasons. In-kind donations management is a good example of this—it makes sense to have a single system that allows donors, beneficiaries, and decision-makers to see what’s needed and what’s available. Systems like the National Donations Management Network are built to help meet various needs through selective user access, multiple data filters, and custom reports. But as the system continually expands to meet more needs, it becomes less intuitive for the average user.

2. Database skills are not a given. The people who respond to disasters range from extremely tech-savvy grassroots organizations like Occupy Sandy to retired first responders with decades of field experience but little knowledge of technical systems. Most of the government and aid workers who get involved fall somewhere in the middle, so they need training (or instructions) on how to use a new technology or database. Often the system only goes part of the way toward accomplishing their tasks. Without the skills or the confidence to make the system work for them, aid workers often resort to simpler systems or even manual methods.

3. Frustrations with systems lead people to develop workarounds. In a high-pressure response environment, you only have time to do the minimum to get your job done. So spending time entering data or trying to run a report seems like a waste. Instead, you start printing out the individual records you need and handwriting your notes. Or, you don’t completely give up on the database, but you start to enter your information in the comments field instead of trying to track down all of the places you’re supposed enter data. Or, you just pick up the phone and have a conversation with someone. So you get your task done right now, but when your shift is up, the next person doesn’t know where you logged everything. And when his shift is up, you don’t know where his stuff is. You want to fall back on the system, but by this point, its information is outdated, and you have to figure out who has the information you need.

4. Sometimes, people just don’t want to share. Organizations can be territorial or suspicious of each other’s ulterior motives. It can be unclear who is responsible for keeping certain information up to date. And sometimes, people just don’t get along (especially when the environment is tense and the stakes high). So even when a system has the capacity to collect and synthesize data from a lot of different sources, some people might not want to use it, because they don’t want to grant others access. If enough users start to feel this way and stop using the database, it will no longer hold enough information to make it worth others’ time.

That is not to say that we should give up on developing technological systems for response. On the contrary: we have an obligation to continue to develop and improve our systems so that we’re best able to respond to disasters. But to do so without recognizing these challenges would be a waste of technology and a failure of development. We must develop systems with an emphasis on user-friendliness and intuitiveness, implement data management goals into planning programs, and make a concerted effort to train responders on basic data management principles.

Technology alone isn’t going to “fix” emergency management. But if we’re deliberate about making technology a part of the way we prepare for disasters, we can go a long way toward a more efficient, effective response.

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