One of the challenges of providing humanitarian relief in acute situations, such as the wake of a natural disaster, is that there are no demand signals, says Goentzel. "There is no point-of-sale data and no one placing orders, so you have to go out and assess needs and prioritize which commodities are most needed where and what quantities should be delivered," he says.
The MIT Humanitarian Response Lab is trying to come up with ways to do better assessments of needs in critical situations, he says. One of the biggest opportunities lies in leveraging big data and social media. "If we can mine data that comes from sources like Twitter and perhaps combine that with complementary data from other sources, we will be better able to understand needs on the ground."
Of course, infrastructure resources like ports and highways also can be compromised and there typically is confusion on the ground, with many entities trying to secure aid, Goentzel says. "There isn't just one supply chain in these situations, there are many and, while we want to work together, it is very difficult and complex to manage these multiple supply chains one at a time."
The Response Lab also is studying the operation of airports and seaports during disasters as well as highway and rail infrastructure used to move goods inland, Goentzel says. Inland transportation is important not only in natural disasters, but also in situations of chronic need, such as supplying medical clinics located in remote and isolated areas. "We are doing fundamental research on how transportation works in these remote areas," he says.
The private sector also plays an important role in humanitarian response, says Goentzel. After Hurricane Katrina, Walmart was very active in getting supplies delivered and stores opened as well as in helping its affected employees. "Getting stores stocked and opened is a key conduit for meeting the needs of people on an ongoing basis," he says. "By actively working with state and federal agencies to get their stores up and running, while also providing goods directly to people affected, Walmart met short-term needs and set up long-term capacity via their stores."
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