Logistics Software: Wake Up & Smell the Coffee

Submitted by Shylock on May 22, 2011 - 11:46pm.

The Haiti Earthquake response was characterised by unprecedented participation. Even the Asian Tsunami, as messy as it was, was not the free-for-all that Haiti became almost overnight. Haiti was an easy flight from the East Coast, the government was flattened, and its media profile was huge... and these factors perhaps made it a vogue response.

Whatever the reasons, many of our fellow do-gooders were stunned, outraged or shocked at the challenges, inefficiencies and difficulties of coordination in Port-au-Prince. So much, in fact, that OCHA commissioned a report calling for a new wave of information sharing to help cater to the "volunteer & technical communities" who it suggests are likely to create a "new reality" in the humanitarian world.

I would argue that this is primarily deflection and that OCHA (20 years old: humanitarian reform is 6 yrs old) would be better off recognising and focussing on fixing its own internal failures in coordinating successfully among UN agencies and established, effective INGOs.... rather than looking externally for scapegoats. But I digress....

Many, if not most, of those anguished and earnest souls desperately seeking attention in Haiti will, in this writer's humble opinion, be unlikely to be encountered by professional aidworkers again in some of the complex theatres (Chad, DRC, Afghanistan) or in smaller or less accessible disasters (Cote D'Ivoire, Niger, Utar Pradesh..). I will eat my hat if Sean Penn shows up in Zimbabwe next year.

Nevertheless, this is not a constructive focus. I do think that the above OCHA report is right in the fact that information sharing in the humanitarian sector very definitely needs a shake up... a revolution even.

But forget inter-agency coordination. It is my belief that we're on the cusp of a new era in the industry: one in which a new generation of professionalism will be defined primarily by the ability of agencies to coordinate information successfully internally. Yup, that's right... C'mon....hands up those of you who truly believe that your agency successfully manages, filters, and shares relevant information across the right channels...

Disaster response is primarily an exercise in logistics. That may be a contentious statement and I respect the importance of specialists in livelihoods, agriculture, WASH, health, etc. who define new and better approaches... but ultimately the thing boils down to logistics. There's no getting around it.

The crucial part of logistics of course is the supply chain. Sure we want to know what our fleet is up to and where our assets are...But the big money is in our supply chain... What we're getting into theatre, when, how and then (most critically) information about its distribution to the victims of the disaster.

Some agencies (notably MapAction) have come onboard in recent years and tried to drag our industry kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Unfortunately, they were greeted mainly by agencies who were unprepared with the level of data sophistication necessary to take advantage of their offerings.

Why is it that even large INGOs don't have a handle yet on disaster supply chain information management? All you need is a web-based system that allows you to set up geographical datasets (warehouses?) that track two transactions (in and out) on categorised stock. This will at least allow you to track and share what you're putting into theatre, when and where. If its hierarchical and web based, you have direct access to the global data set. This in itself would be invaluable information that could be accessed and shared and compiled across agencies....

But think about taking that online SCM software down to beneficiary level. Think about being able to produce dynamic maps that show what you have put where, in real time, down to a household level...

There is no excuse. This is way overdue.

The Fritz Institute has withdrawn support for Helios. Sahana and Aidmatrix are making interesting moves in the right direction but are not finding the funding they need. Maybe its not just a question of funding though. Why is it that there are so few companies out there actively trying to solve this problem? Its a potential meta-win for the aid world! It could be huge.... and yet 22 years after the invention of the WWW, there are only two contenders out there trying to get this right!.... and they are struggling!!

So what's going on?!

In my opinion, the problem is not just funding. There are plenty of donors out there trying to kickstart a new paradigm for aidwork. The problem is primarily internal: a function of the decentralisation of the industry. INGO's are directed by - and distanced from - their operational units: country offices. Country Directors are focussed more on funding, than on their supply chains. INGOs, largely because of this weighting, are still trapped at a level of data immaturity in which they just don't have the level of supply chain process standardisation necessary to translate into a logical, system-friendly, relational structure.

Why am I posting this? I'd like to know your opinions. What will it take? How can it happen? How can we get over this hump?

The age in which agencies can abuse the romanticism and remoteness of their work to bask in a luddite, blissful ignorance, ended about ten years ago.

And to Sean Penn and the Technical and Volunteer Communities who were so frustrated in Haiti, I say this: Try Papua New Guinea, try Chad, try Liberia, try Afghanistan, try Sudan... try it for five or ten years.... If you don't want to do that and you're still angry at the shortcomings of the industry, don't just step in to the nearest theatre and point fingers: help us fix this problem.

Help us to wake up and smell the coffee.

Submitted by SimonBrown on June 9, 2011 - 7:46pm.

Hi Shylock,

I was a logistician in Haiti with a medium sized but well established and respected NGO. You are right about it being about logistics. I would say that about any complex emergency. if you can't get your supply chain right, you may as well pack up and go home. The best medics, engineers, etc. in the world cannot function properly if they don't have stuff to work with.

I don't agree though about a web-based approach. That might work well in Port au Prince, where is was easy to get a fairly reliable internet connection. When you look at some of the other places, some you mention, that is not always there. I have been in many places that I was reliant on a Bgan. Too expensive for internet but not too bad for emails only.

You can develop a good supply chain tracking system using just microsoft access. As long as it is developed by supply logs, it can be user friendly and appropriate to generic field conditions, wherever that may be.

With regards to OCHA, they need to concentrate more on sharing information; being a point of contact where NGOs can find out what's going on, rather than trying to control what people do. My experiences with OCHA is that they like chairing meetings, talking a lot and giving the impression that they are in charge. If I am doing food distributions in one part of a city, as I was in PaP, I want OCHA to be able to tell me who is doing the same in the nearby areas so that I can coordinate directly with them. It's much more effective than going to a meeting with hundreds in attendance and all wanting to hear their own voices.

I didn't know about Fritz withdrawing from Helios. I have heard lots about it but have never seen it. The great thing about Microsoft Access is that it can produce databases that you can share with anyone but you can also set it up to your own organisation's systems and link it to other departments, such as finance and HR.

In my opinion, we should keep a certain distance from the new technologies. After all, we still rely on HF radios for communications. In terms of cost and reliability, it's still the best option in many of the places that we work. The same should apply to supply chain management. You need something that will work anywhere and in all circumstances.

On the subject of Sean Penn, I was sceptical at first. However, JPHRO had the best, most efficient model for rubble clearance of all the NGOs in Haiti. To be fair to him, he didn't try and run it. He got good people in, with lots of experience and let them do their work. They weren't perfect but who the hell is? I also doubt we will be seeing JPHRO in Zimbabwe next year but you never know. MERLIN started off with money raised for Bosnia - another in-vogue emergency, particularly for European NGOs. I have never worked for them but my feeling is that they are one of the better ones.

Anyway, I am a firm believer in KISS (keep it simple stupid) when it comes to logistics. The most important tool you will ever use in supply chain management is your stock card. If you don't have that one right, all the rest is just a very pretty waste of time.

Anyway, just my thoughts. All the best


Submitted by Shylock on June 20, 2011 - 10:04am.

Hi Simon

Thanks for that. I agree that KISS is a good motto for field work and I understand the technical limitations in the field but I also think the industry sometimes has an almost romantic tendency to indulge itself in a sense of Luddism. After all, a lot of the marketing might not work so well if we were perceived to have the same tools available that the local county council or state municipality has! (And shock-horror we might be expected to be as easily accessible and publicly accountable!). Anyway I don't see the industry rushing to tear down the technological barrier even if it is not actually openly welcomed.

Most Third world countries leap-frogged Western mobile telephony technology and cheap internet access (e.g. USB mobile internet dongles) is getting further and further into remote locations. Where it doesn't, developments in application architecture these days allow for pretty seamless offline synchronization which can be used at sites with sporadic access and makes even BGAN costs manageable. You mention radio, but I have been in the field for 15 years and you see a genuine dependency on HF actually very rarely these days.

You rightly point out that in-house development can get you a reasonable solution at low cost but while this could be a good solution for very small NGOs I don't think MS Access is appropriate for those managing funds from institutional donors (including Merlin). The trouble with MS Access solutions is that they tend to be decentralized, poorly managed and undocumented. They're often not built with scaleability in mind either. Someone hires a developer at country level or someone builds a database internally. It might be just what they need for a year or two but it probably won't meet the needs of the entire organization and in my experience they often fall into disuse relatively quickly. Access databases are notoriously prone to corruption and often the guy who built it has left or the internal impetus happens to be somewhere else that year.... Even Microsoft subtly admit that Access is not really suitable for corporate applications. If you're an agency which operates in multiple countries and regularly handles contracts in the order of tens of K´s of $s then it would seem worthwhile to invest in a longer-term, supported, centrally-developed system. I love Excel, don't get me wrong.... but it can be a hassle to manage files and files of multi-tabbed spreadsheets that are at once the data and the report. I know it can be a hassle for in-country staff as well who often have to put up with different formats used by incoming expat logisticians. I think it would be refreshing to join an agency who had its shit together enough to give me a day's training on their systems and deploy me to use them. Systems which actually automate reporting and documentation and therefore save me and my staff time and allow us to focus on getting the job done.

And of course you're right: I may have been too quick to cast aspersions on Mr Penn's efforts. I did actually hear good things about JPHRO and the target of my rant is probably a myriad of smaller operations, community groups, etc. Sean's high profile probably just makes him a convenient target to represent the sort of gung-ho goodwill group that concern me. I'm actually a big fan of his, and I'd like to think he would understand the point with a wry sense of humor :) I'm not saying smaller contributory groups are unwelcome, either. I'm just saying that the professional agencies have a lot of work to do to coordinate effectively internally let alone externally...and I'd like to see OCHA focusing on supporting consortium-led information systems development to improve coordination among that professional, established tier before worrying about the smaller more precarious levels of groups and individuals and startups. As you point out they could do better at sharing information and rather than asking agencies to duplicate effort by providing their own additional set of forms and excel sheets, I think they would be much more likely to succeed if they were to focus on helping those agencies to develop compatible, standardized logistics system that are designed with cross-sharing of information in mind.

If OCHA spent its money between emergencies on hosting joint-development workshops with systems analysts instead of spending it during the emergency itself on sending pretty Kennedy school grads in to "coordinate" at inter-agency meetings... I think they'd reach their objective sooner and add more value.

And yep... no fancy IS system will be worth a damn if you don't have your stock cards in order :)

See you in the field!

Submitted by SimonBrown on June 20, 2011 - 8:17pm.

Hi Shylock,

You make some interesting points. I think a lot of these problems could be avoided if NGOs, of any size, just came up with some standards and stuck to them. The process of establishing these standards is vitally important though. I haven't been in the field as long as you have (going on 7 years now) but my experience is that most organisation's templates and data recording mechanisms have been designed by people sitting in headquarters trying to figure out what information they need to appease donors and finance departments. Not that I don't think that is important - it's essential for survival. However, I think much more could be achieved by consulting logs on the ground. We know what is important in terms of communications with programs (they moan at us often enough) and logs performance. We also know the practical realities of our work and what systems would help us do our job.

You're right that technology is advancing and NGOs have embraced a lot of that technology, albeit slowly. I disagree on your point on HF radios, with a caveat. There are plenty of projects out there that do not rely on HF radios, but they should! NGOs, by their nature, operate in insecure environments and with marginalised communities. These are the places which will have the poorest infrastructure. Sure, you may have a mobile phone network but you can be pretty sure it will go down whenever you need it most. These networks are often heavily monitored by the government and will be switched off whenever there is trouble. In addition, in the case of natural emergencies, shear volume of calls can overload the system. Satellite phones are less likely to be shut down, although this is still perfectly possible, but they are not truly two-way, open communications. A guy out in the field, will not always have signal and the first thing he knows about a missed call is when he gets a text message saying he missed a call sometime during the previous hour. For me, the one and only truly reliable means of communication is the HF radio. Sure, it's crap at short range comms but that can be overcome with the use of a centralised radio base, further away. Of the 8 field missions I have done to date, I have been reliant on HF radio as a means of communication and a security management tool, except when the equipment was allowed to deteriorate to the point where it was no longer reliable - making projects reliant on Thurayas. I am currently in South Sudan - in exactly that position and my choice was spend €20K on HF equipment or €3,000 on extra sat phones. I chose the radios because we'd be spending close to €3,000/month on call charges. Not only are HF radios cheaper, they are much quicker to contact people in an emergency.

I have two big concerns about using advanced technology in the field. Firstly, there is the issue of design. I would be very dubious about any commercial organisation putting something together that actually works well on the ground. Simple designs, with simple applications, can be developed by logs for use by logs. The other issue is educational standards in some of the places where we work. In South Sudan, for example, I am struggling to find drivers who can fill in a log book. There is no way I will find anyone locally who can operate a commercial supply system. I genuinely believe that excel can work fine if it's set up properly. I admit it is limited in terms of the functionality vs practicality but I believe that is where access comes in. Good supply systems are simply databases. The most important thing is that you are collecting and recording the correct data.

Anyway, I am sure we will never agree on all points but who says we have to? I have worked with some of the biggest NGOs, as well as one of the smaller ones and there are so many things that can be improved using old technology (or no technology!). I think it's vitally important that we improve the basics first. Once we get that right (in my opinion a long way off), we can move on to bigger and better things. There's little point opening an advanced cancer treatment centre if everyone is dying from malaria, TB, pneumonia, malnutrition, etc.

I hope we do meet in the field one day. We can continue our debate over a beer or three. All the best


Submitted by Shylock on June 20, 2011 - 9:17pm.

Good points. Maybe there are two issues here: my beef is really with information systems rather than communications technologies. Radios are great and necessary and you're right that their importance is often neglected. Yes, there are challenges to developing decent logistics information systems. The systems I have in mind should definitely be developed by logisticians for logisticians as you suggest - I agree that a corporate solution is unlikely to hit the mark. I don't think it will be long before 'funding' meets 'developers' meets 'logisticians' and we find a group puts something useful on the table. As for educational levels, some of the Excel sheets I've seen in use require a masters degree to operate :) Why not develop to the prevalent level of education, instead of using it as an excuse not to develop...? The challenge would be to come up with something that is actually easier to use than a spreadsheet. Google seem to do very well designing for simplicity.

Let's hope something turns up in the next 7 years anyway. Meanwhile, good luck keeping those spreadsheets in order in South Sudan and I will hold you to that beer one day!

Thanks for the chat - you've given me food for thought too.

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