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Student plumbs disaster relief logistics

The devastation caused by last December's tsunami prompted an unprecedented outpouring of global aid that presented disaster relief providers with innumerable logistical challenges. Now an MIT graduate student has teamed up with an international humanitarian organization to draw logistical lessons from the relief effort and create a supply chain framework to deal with future disasters.

Tim Russell, a graduate student in the Engineering Systems Division, has been collaborating with the Fritz Institute, whose mission is to improve the efficiency of disaster relief efforts through logistics practices and technology solutions.

The Fritz Institute carried out a survey of almost 40 organizations that were providing on-site relief to tsunami victims in Southeast Asia and East Africa. More than 100 people from 18 international aid organizations replied.

Russell is analyzing the data. The initial results were presented in late April at the Humanitarian Logistics Conference in Geneva.

"The biggest lesson to be learned…is that one centralized group needs to coordinate the logistics of the entire [relief] effort," said Russell. After the tsunami hit, hundreds of aid organizations, thousands of volunteers, tons of supplies and billions of dollars flooded the region. Every organization agreed that the financial resources needed to conduct the relief effort were available, but the lack of clear ground information kept the aid from reaching many of the people in need.

The United Nations did set up a joint logistics center to help disseminate ground information and reduce duplications in the supply chain, but unfortunately not all groups used the hub. "It's the best way to share information. At the hub, they'll know what roads are open, what the latest customs processes are, if bridges have been fixed, and what the airport manifest looks like," Russell explained.

That information would have proved valuable to many of the organizations. For example, the survey showed that more than 70 percent of the respondents encountered delays due to the inconsistent and constantly changing customs procedures.

Another lesson learned from the Fritz survey is that aid organizations did not have enough people with appropriate training to perform specific tasks, especially trained logisticians.

When there are not enough logisticians in the field, said Russell, "there's no metrics being done, no way to track how fast goods are getting to their destination, and no means to evaluate the supply chain in real time." This problem is exacerbated by the lack of software to track the supply chain. According to the surveys, most organizations just use Excel spreadsheets or homegrown systems. "The cost of time and money to buy the software and train their people is too much for many groups to handle."

These problems are not new to the humanitarian community. "Whenever the international community responds to war, civil conflict and natural disasters with aid, complex logistical problems present themselves," said Russell. "Many people involved in humanitarian relief recognize these problems, but this is the first time anyone has ever done studies on how to solve them."

Russell hopes the Fritz survey and his research will help open the world's eyes to the need for more study in humanitarian logistics.

"This research might introduce the academic world to this problem," he said. "And who knows, it may inspire more people to do more studies and make humanitarian relief even more effective."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 11, 2005 (download PDF).

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