World Food Programme: Wave of Support

By John McCormick Print this article Print

How a U.N relief agency had technology on the ground within 48 hours to help rush food to the victims of Asia's tsunami.

On Dec. 26, 2004, Finbarr Curran, chief information officer for the United Nations' World Food Programme, was enjoying a relaxing holiday at his home in Rome.

For the Irishman and the members of his staff, it was Boxing Day, when you "box" up gifts that need to be returned to stores. But Curran soon realized that there would be no holiday afterglow this year.

At first, Curran wasn't too alarmed by TV reports about an earthquake and tidal wave in the Indian Ocean. Initial dispatches indicated localized damage and few casualties.

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Over the next few hours, however, as reports from World Food Programme (WFP) staffers came in, Curran says, "We realized there was a problem."

By the next morning, Curran and his Information and Communications Technology (ICT) team had launched a pre-rehearsed deployment of computer and communications equipment across the region in support of what they knew would be a massive relief effort.

Twenty-five members of his 300-person team were dispatched immediately to some of the hardest-hit areas, such as Banda Aceh, a coastal city of 400,000 in Indonesia that was partially swept away by the tidal surge. Within 48 hours, computer and communications facilities were installed in key food distribution points around the area to track the rice, biscuits and bottled milk that the relief agency's staff was rushing to the area by air, sea and road.

"We hit the ground running pretty fast," Curran says.

Other organizations can learn from the World Food Programme's ability to quickly jump-start operations, particularly in the way it plans the logistics of deploying computers and networking equipment on an instant's notice.

The agency has an Excel spreadsheet to tell it what type of computer equipment, and in what quantity, it needs to send to groups of workers suddenly transferred to the field. It keeps a warehouse in the United Arab Emirates city of Dubai stocked with at least 50 computers, hundreds of radios and assorted networking devices that it can airlift anywhere in the world in 24 hours. And it has developed an e-mail system that works over radio waves when all other forms of communication are down.

While most organizations won't have to respond to a tsunami-like disaster, many will, at one time or another, have to deal with an earthquake, flood, blackout, hurricane or terrorist attack. Being able to quickly set up tested information and communications systems in stricken areas is becoming a necessity.

According to Peter Walker, director of the Feinstein International Famine Center, a research group based at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., the quick response of the WFP is "amazing. The ability of the international system, the World Food Programme and [its partners], to get these things up and running quickly … well, I don't think Wal-Mart could do it."

The WFP works with commercial shipping partners, such as worldwide delivery service TNT Logistics, and local relief agencies to transport and distribute computer equipment and food.

Nevertheless, the World Food Programme, which was set up to supply food to those in urgent need, found this disaster daunting. The tidal wave hit an area 4,000 miles across, leaving 300,000 dead or missing and more than 1 million homeless. Fallen bridges and washed-out roads stranded people in areas with no electricity or telephones. In an initial report on the disaster, the agency said the tsunami presented it "with one of its most logistically challenging operations yet."

Across the region, the organization rushed in 500 staffers to oversee the flow of food coming in by a half-dozen planes and helicopters, another half-dozen ships and landing craft, and almost 200 trucks. All would be carrying foodstuffs—rice, grain, cooking oil—destined for 20 different hubs and hundreds of local distribution points around the Indian Ocean.

To support the logistics, the World Food Programme, within days of the disaster, had outfitted relief workers on the ground with computers they could use to access key software applications—including an SAP R/3 resource planning system that could track large shipments of food at sea and a homegrown application that monitors the distribution of food from where it lands in-country to its final distribution point at survivor camps and affected villages. Communications between the field and headquarters was handled for the first week or so via a radio network, but by mid-January the agency had set up a satellite network to handle data traffic.

By mid-March, the systems had helped the agency distribute 47,000 tons of food to more than 1.7 million people.

Trying to dispense so much food, so quickly, to so many people, across such a wide geographic area without technology "would have been very tough," Curran says.

After the wave struck the Indian Ocean area, the WFP consulted with its local representatives in Sri Lanka and Indonesia to figure out the best places to set up operations, taking into account transit hubs and survivor camp locations. In Indonesia, for example, the food program established sites in Banda Aceh, Jakarta, Medan and Meulaboh.

All sites needed reliable voice, e-mail and Internet service—and fast.

To speed the transport of equipment, the ICT over the years has worked up an Excel spreadsheet that eliminates some of the guesswork in determining how much equipment is needed to support field workers. It takes into consideration the number of people who will be sent to the site and what tasks those people will perform.

As a rule of thumb, for every 10 or so people at a site, eight computers and two printers are sent from Dubai. Larger sites are equipped with a satellite dish.

"It's not an exact science," Curran says. But it does allow the ICT group to quickly send equipment to disaster sites.

This article was originally published on 2005-04-06
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