World Food Programme: Wave of Support

In an article first published in the Baseline magazine, John McCormick explains how WFP had technology on the ground within 48 hours to help rush food to the victims of Asia's tsunami.

In an article first published in the Baseline magazine, John McCormick explains how WFP 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.

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.

Once on the ground, the first priority of the ICT team is to set up communications. Because the infrastructure in the hardest-hit tsunami areas was wiped out, the U.N. agency had to rely initially on radio sets.

But the WFP uses radio signals for more than just voice communication. PCs are connected through wireless local area networks based on the popular 802.11b standard, also know as WiFi, to a local server hooked up to a radio modem. From there, e-mails and attachments are sent over high-frequency radio signals at between 2 MHz and 30 MHz.

A few years ago, the WFP turned to UUPlus, a small, privately held company in Los Osos, Calif., that had figured out that by eliminating many typical e-mail protocols, it could overcome the challenge of transmitting messages and files over radio's low bandwidth—just 2,400 characters per second. Where most e-mails go through a series of steps to establish, acknowledge and verify senders and receivers, UUPlus basically just sends a quick ping to verify the host and connection and then dumps the message into the target e-mail box.

UUPlus also automatically compresses both the e-mail and any attachments before a message is sent.

"Considering your bandwidth is limited, you need to optimize it as best you can," says Gianluca Bruni, an ICT project manager who spent time working in Banda Aceh and Jakarta.

Still, while radio communications serve the immediate need, the relief organization knows people in the field are more productive when they have the same applications and computer performance that they've become accustomed to in their offices. With many of the tsunami area's telephone lines out, the only way to establish speedy data communications was with satellites.

Here, the U.N. agency got a break. Last year, it started working with AT&T to roll out a satellite system across the Indian Ocean region that was scheduled to be deployed during the first half of this year, according to Simon Grimsley, the business manager for AT&T's satellite services unit.

Not surprisingly, on Dec. 26, one of the first calls ICT staffers made was to AT&T to see if the deployment could be speeded up. AT&T got right behind the effort, says Grimsley, "to deploy the satellite locations as quickly as possible."

The first five dishes were up and running by the end of January, and another five were operational by mid-February. There are now 25 satellite sites in the region.

With the high-speed network, people on the ground can access all corporate information just as if they were at headquarters in Rome. "There's no difference," Curran points out.

At the heart of the World Food Programme's logistics information system is Compas, or the Commodity Movement Processing and Analysis System. At any point along its supply chain—from warehouses, to trucks, to distribution centers—the internally developed software program can give relief workers an accurate, up-to-date snapshot of its food stocks.

All food shipment data is sent from the field to Rome, where a software program takes all the information coming in from the disaster area and updates an Oracle database at headquarters, which, in turn, can then be accessed by people in-country.

While Compas monitors food from port to distribution point, an SAP R/3 system tracks food being shipped from donor countries, such as the U.S., according to quantity and destination.

Together, the systems give the WFP "a complete, global picture," says Bruni, and allow the agency to divert food from one area to another that might be in greater need.

For instance, right after the tsunami hit, the relief organization was able to spot a U.S. donation of some 5,500 tons of rice that had just arrived in Indonesia as part of the agency's normal food relief. The WFP decided to split the stock, keeping 60% of the shipment for Indonesia, but sending the remainder to Sri Lanka to help victims there.

In addition to monitoring food distribution, the World Food Programme uses the SAP system to track donations, on which the agency is totally dependent. Contributions from donors around the world are recorded in the R/3 system and matched against distribution data from Compas, allowing for a full accounting of donations and disbursements.

"If you're not able to show where funds are and how they're being used, there won't be future funds," says Tom Shirk, president of SAP's global public services unit.

In the past, the accuracy of data input into Compas wasn't always consistent. For instance, staffers sometimes keyed in partial information, such as just the first seven digits of an eight-digit shipping notice. The edit controls, Curran explains, weren't as strong as they should have been.

Over the past year, however, the WFP has built in features, such as pop-up screens, that require users to verify what they type in before the information is accepted by the system.

Another limitation of Compas, however, can't be fixed as easily. Compas is what's known as a batch system, which means it collects data from various sources and then processes it at a predetermined time, such as the end of a day. SAP, on the other hand, is capable of processing data as it is input. As a result, the two systems aren't always in sync.

While this isn't a major headache, the ICT says it could better manage and adjust shipments if it had up-to-the-minute data from Compas. Curran says the agency is now looking to replace the Compas system, possibly with SAP's supply chain software.

Overall, however, there have been relatively few hiccups in ICT's support of the initial tsunami relief efforts.

The operation is now moving into its next phase. As the situation begins to stabilize, the U.N. agency will start to reduce relief supplies in favor of rehabilitation activities, such as setting up projects in which communities receive food in exchange for helping to rebuild roads and public buildings. And ICT, which has been training locals to support its computer and communications equipment, will begin to recall some of its 50 or so staffers still deployed in the area.

Overall, the WFP estimates that in the final tally, ICT costs to support tsunami relief will come in at about $6 million.

But it will have been money well spent.

From the first food shipments of 185 tons on Dec. 28, the WFP has now delivered more than 47,000 tons of food. And, most important, there have been no reports of starvation.

It couldn't have been done without computers and communications. As Curran says: "Our operations depend a lot on technology."

World Food Programme Base Case

Headquarters: Via C.G. Viola 68, Parco dei Medici, 00148 Rome, Italy

Phone: 39-06-65131

Chief Information Officer: Finbarr Curran

Financials: $3.28 billion total expenditures in 2003 (the most recent year for which numbers are available).

Challenge: Get food to more than 1.5 million victims of the Dec. 26 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Baseline Goals

- Increase food shipments to the Indian Ocean region, which have grown from initial deliveries of 185 tons of food on Dec. 28 to more than 47,000 tons as of mid-March.

- Feed the rising number of hungry tsunami victims, whose ranks have swelled from primary estimates of 1.5 million to 1.7 million.

- Raise more than $250 million to buy and distribute food across the tsunami-affected area.