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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Engineering Disaster Relief

IEEE Feature Story: University program applies engineering view
to humanitarian programs, BY TRUDY E. BELL

In the first few days after the December tsunami that killed more than a quarter of a million people and devastated property across Southeast Asia, India, and East Africa, some relief efforts actually fed the chaos rather than easing it. For example, says Senior Member Mark Haselkorn, “Military helicopters performed their rescue mission so well, they contributed to the overcrowding of the region’s hospitals, while goods that were delivered efficiently from around the world sat in aircraft on runways and were not distributed for days.”
In the view of Haselkorn, professor and founding chairman of the Department of Technical Communication at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle, such nightmares in logistics, communications, and coordination should—and can—be prevented. Driven by that conviction, he and UW colleagues founded the graduate-level Inter-disciplinary Program in Humanitarian Relief (IPHR), a partnership between his university’s College of Engineering and its School of Public Affairs.
The IPHR’s first group of two dozen students is scheduled to begin in September studying communications, logistics, and a smattering of international law and public policy. In one year, they will earn a certificate in a program that supplements the graduate degrees they are pursuing in engineering or in other areas, such as public affairs, public health, the sciences, or social work.

A SYSTEMS APPROACH Many disaster relief challenges—such as providing clean water and sanitation, reestablishing transportation systems and power grids, and installing information and communication systems—require engineering solutions. “Immediate needs are tracking medical goods and emergency supplies to make sure they get to the right places,” Haselkorn says. “But in a region whose infrastructure was just destroyed, securing communications may be as difficult as securing clean water.”
More important than actual technology, however, “engineers can bring a badly needed systems approach to disaster relief,” Haselkorn explains. One of the biggest problems in a widespread disaster is coordination. Much of the chaos right after December’s tsunami, for example, was in part “a natural outcome of more than 50 loosely coordinated organizations rushing to a disaster area to do good,” Haselkorn continues. “But it also reflects the complexity and interconnectedness of the task of disaster relief.” A systems approach to orchestrating complex logistics, he says, “could offer techniques and problem-solving strategies that have proved effective in commercial industries.”
Haselkorn says disaster relief is not just a matter of bringing immediate aid; it must also include long-term rebuilding of a stricken region’s infrastructure—in large part to minimize loss of life and property in any future disaster. [This is a philosophy shared by Engineers Without Borders, an organization to which the IEEE has contributed funds for disaster relief; see sidebar, “Engineers Aid Post-Tsunami Rebuilding.”]
Taking the longer view will require introducing into developing countries the same kinds of advance planning and preparation procedures routinely practiced in developed nations—including building codes for earthquake-resistant structures and emergency evacuation procedures for schools and office buildings. Introducing such practices, however, clearly involves not only engineering but also expertise in the political and legal systems of local and national governments—hence the need to combine engineering expertise with knowledge of international law and public policy.
Long-term mitigation would also include instituting plans for emergency communications, Haselkorn says. For example, some of the losses suffered in the Southeast Asia tsunami might have been less severe had there been such a pre-existing plan: “Mobile phones could have been dropped by helicopter. Open the box, hit a button, and you’re communicating via satellite,” he suggests.
Even more important would be instituting a coordinated early warning system that could alert people to evacuate danger areas in advance of a tsunami or other disaster. “Sensors in a tsunami-warning system are great, but they are the easy part,” says Haselkorn. “The hard part is planning what to do with the sensor warnings once you get them.” In other words, whom do you call to say a tsunami is coming?
True area-wide systems may also involve international cooperative agreements, training of experts, and education of the general public, all of which “should be in place and continually maintained before a disaster strikes,” he says.
In short, Haselkorn concludes, “technology is only one part of any effective approach to disaster relief, alongside people, public policy, and good practices.”
Inspiration for the IPHR came in November 2003, when the UW’s Marc Lindenberg Center for Humanitarian Action approached Haselkorn and Benita Beamon, a professor of industrial engineering, to explore ways of applying engineering to humanitarian relief efforts. As Haselkorn and Beamon studied the issue, they realized that, unlike engineering or medicine, humanitarian relief was not really a profession.
“Although humanitarian relief is a US $30 billion–$40 billion industry worldwide,” says Haselkorn, “there’s no degree, no professional journal, no formal scholarship to enable relief workers to share information and advance their careers and the field.”
That discovery fueled their proposal to the UW’s Fund for Innovation and Redesign, which granted an award that enabled the College of Engineering and the Daniel Evans School of Public Affairs to establish the IPHR. The program’s advisory board includes representatives from more than 30 industrial corporations, including Amazon.com, Boeing, Expeditors International, Microsoft, and Starbucks, in partnership with a number of nongovernmental relief organizations, such as CARE and Catholic Relief Services.
The 21-credit, one-year certificate program will have three core courses that introduce students to the management of humanitarian relief and emergencies; the application of commercial supply-chain strategies to the delivery of emergency goods and supplies; and the application of electronic information and supporting systems to relief efforts. Students also will select six credits’ worth of electives from other disciplines, including urban planning, public affairs, international health, social work, nursing, anthropology, and technical communication.

HANDS-ON HOURS The program’s centerpiece, however, is a 200-hour “practicum” —a five-week (or longer) tour of field work guided by IPHR faculty and leaders in relief organizations. To help develop ideas for such projects, professionals from international relief and development organizations will visit classes as guest speakers and advisors.
Two pioneers of the practicum—even before the IPHR began—were UW College of Engineering graduate students Kate Hulpke (studying technical communication) and Steve Kotleba (studying industrial engineering). Both second-year master’s degree students pursued field studies in different parts of Africa in the summer of 2004.
Hulpke worked in Mozambique with VillageReach, an organization whose mission, she explains, is to “improve health and quality of life in the most remote regions of developing countries” [see photo p. 12]. She created a database for managing information about the transportation, storage, and use of vaccines against childhood diseases in rural areas.
Her documentation of the supply chain went beyond just how VillageReach’s field coordinators transport the supplies from the provincial warehouse to the rural clinics. It includes “the entire chain of decisions and actions that determine how supplies get from the national capital to the province to the clinics to the people,” Hulpke explains.
Her purpose was to identify delays in shipping vaccines because of poor forecasting of needs—which resulted in “mothers and babies’ being turned away for lack of vaccines and eroding public trust in the health care system,” she says.
Hulpke’s database is now being used by VillageReach to track and manage its field operations; moreover, information from it is being used by the Mozambique Ministry of Health to improve its forecasting of demand and the management of its inventory of vaccines in Cabo Delgado, the province that was the site of VillageReach’s pilot program.
Kotleba worked at several places in Kenya with a consortium of seven nongovernmental organizations called the East Africa Inter-Agency Supply Chain Management Team. He focused on documenting the flow of food, blankets, tents, tarps, and other supplies during responses to rapid-onset emergencies (volcanic eruptions and earthquakes), slow-onset emergencies (droughts and famines), and complex humanitarian emergencies (civil wars and displacement of indigenous populations). His work resulted in a software model of a relief supply chain to help analyze inventory control and delivery of aid, and to identify ways the organizations might collaborate to improve their responses to different types of emergencies.
What do the two grad students have to say about their work in the field? Without field experience, “this whole area of opportunity—serving humanitarian causes by managing information to support better decision-making—would not have been evident to me as a technical communication major,” Hulpke reflects. She was particularly enthusiastic about “learning by doing.” She says she will continue to work with VillageReach after she gets her master’s degree, expected this month.
“The experience was very exciting,” says Kotleba, who completed his master’s degree in April with a focus on operations research and logistics. “The opportunity to study and work with humanitarian organizations and emergency relief awakened a sense of the ‘greater good’ within me,” he says. “It’s clear to me that these groups need engineering skills.” He has relocated to Chicago, where he has become a supply-chain expert for a large consulting firm.
Haselkorn hopes his program eventually will encourage humanitarian disaster relief agencies to consider more than immediate, tangible needs such as water, food, medicine, and shelter. “This is necessary, to be sure,” he acknowledges. “But the focus must also be on longer-term issues, such as establishing a strategic infrastructure for assessing a disaster’s impact and coordinating response. The engineering profession has a lot to contribute to these areas.”

MORE INFORMATION about Haselkorn’s Interdisciplinary Program in Humanitarian Relief is at http://depts.washington.edu/iphr/homepage.shtml. More information about VillageReach appears at http://villagereach.org/

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