UN World Food Programme

Fighting malaria with your cell phone?

QR codes like this one are being used by WFP to track humanitarian supplies on the move. Scan this one to find out where these relief goods are going!

Chances are, you might have seen this symbol before. --->

Originally designed in Japan, “Quick Response” codes are used to encrypt information such as web site URLs, phone numbers, text messages, and even geolocation. They are a digital step past the traditional barcode in that they can store and constantly update information, which can be accessed by just taking a picture of the code with your cell phone.

For an organization like WFP, GPS tracking capabilities have the potential to simplify and streamline the tracking of relief items, making this information not only more easily accessible to our own staff, but for the many humanitarian organizations for whom we transport cargo.

In Zambia, our logistics teams are using QR codes to track the movement of nearly five million mosquito nets currently being transported by WFP on behalf of UNDP and the Global Fund to around 1,000 health centres throughout the country.

These QR codes are linked to a centralized Relief Item Tracking Application (RITA), managed by logistics staff based at WFP Headquarters in Rome, Italy. Data collected from the local level is inputted by Zambia-based staff and superintendents who collectively monitor 48 districts on a daily basis. A different code is assigned to each independent batch of cargo that sets off for delivery.

Using a QR code reader installed on a cell phone, staff or partners can easily take a photo of the code above, and find out the history of a particular batch of mosquito nets.

The transport of these nets is part of a larger effort by the Government of Zambia, together with international aid partners to ultimately eradicate malaria in their country. One part of this plan is ensuring that Zambians are able to access mosquito nets, lowering the rate of potential malaria cases.

This operation in Zambia is unique in that it’s the first time that WFP has implemented this type of technology for tracking relief items on a large scale – and it’s proving to be successful. Not only can individual cargo movements be tracked, but the progress of the entire operation can easily be seen via mobile phone or computer.

Zambia-based Logistics Officer Edita Nichols has seen the impact first-hand:

“This type of technology is revolutionising the way WFP tracks relief items for its partners. It allows us to instantly learn where every single mosquito net is located in the supply chain.. whether it’s in a warehouse, on the move or at its final destination – all at the flick of a wrist! This is an important tool for our partners operating in remote locations without regular access to internet or power. With this technology, they can receive quick updates by scanning the QR code with their smart phone and make the necessary plans for distribution,” Edita explains.

This new technology not only increases the efficiency and effectiveness of our operations, but it also helps WFP to provide an improved logistics service to our humanitarian partners around the world, which grew from 63 in 2012 to 80 partners in 2013.