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Effective emergency response to a natural disaster requires rapid, coordinated action among multiple parties. Suffice to say that such a level of efficiency has been sadly lacking in many prior relief efforts. Can blockchain make it happen?
Rarely does a location struck by a natural disaster lack parties willing to donate aid, in the form of food, medicine, shelter and other essential supplies. The problem is one of logistics. The 7.0 earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010 saw an influx of international aid by nations, non-governmental organizations and individuals. But the effectiveness of their efforts was undercut by the inability of all parties to communicate on a single platform. As a result, aid didn’t always get to where it was most needed in a timely fashion. Relief parties couldn’t easily match resources with demand.
That’s a classic supply-chain dilemma, but in this case the consequences were human suffering and lost lives, not empty store shelves. It’s no surprise, then, that the military has expressed an interest in deploying blockchain technology, which promises to create a shared, distributed ledger of transactions to which all relevant parties have instant access. (Such a capability would be just as valuable on the battlefield as in an emergency relief scenario — hence, perhaps, the military’s attention.)
The Defense Logistics Agency, the combat-support arm of the U.S. Department of Defense, is taking a close look at blockchain. Late last year, DLA hosted a meeting in Philadelphia of key officers and staff members focused on continuous process improvement for disaster response.
“The potential is absolutely enormous,” said CPI management analyst Elijah Londo. “Talk about blockchain, [and] you’ll hear experts comparing it to transforming trust or transactions in the same way the internet changes communication.”
Relief missions stand to benefit greatly from a blockchain, according to software giant SAP. It cites multiple advantages, including the maintenance of “a single source of truth for all operations that is updated in real time,” privacy of proprietary data, equal status of all participants, and the freedom to join or depart the network at any time.
“Blockchain has a huge role to play” in disaster relief, agrees Judy Fainor, chief architect for research and development with quality-management software vendor Sparta Systems. She says the technology promises to play a crucial role in linking suppliers with transportation providers.
Blockchain, Fainor adds, can serve as “the central system from which all operations can be managed.” It provides tracing and tracking capabilities, while verifying the authenticity of drugs, medical supplies and food.
Passage of the Drug Supply Chain Security Act, which phases in tough new requirements for manufacturers, distributors and logistics providers between 2014 and 2023, is a likely catalyst for the adoption of blockchain technology in that sector. A number of pilot projects are underway, says Fainor, although “it remains to be seen how far they get, and what the hurdles are.”
As a standalone technology, blockchain doesn’t promise a magic cure for the confusion and inefficiencies that plague so many disaster-response efforts. In any given situation, all parties must be on the same blockchain. The need for a common platform becomes even more acute when highly regulated items such as drugs and medical supplies are in the mix. Says Fainor: “There has to be some regulating body that owns this blockchain.”
There’s a certain irony in that statement, given that blockchain technology was born out of the creation of Bitcoin, a bid to sidestep international regulations and controls on the creation and trading of currency. But when it comes to disaster relief, blockchain will have to mature beyond its original purpose of mere disruption. Fainor sees the eventual necessity for a central authority overseeing blockchain participants and validating their authenticity.
Nor is a blockchain created for disaster relief likely to resemble one formed for the purpose of trading cryptocurrencies. Given the participation of life sciences and pharmaceutical suppliers, it would need to be centralized and permissioned, rather than function as a completely open network.
So who would manage this tightly controlled blockchain on behalf of the varied parties involved in an emergency response effort? Fainor sees an international relief organization as the logical entity to oversee the network of manufacturers, suppliers, distributors and on-the-ground response teams.
Other questions are yet to be answered, including whether participation in a particular blockchain would be mandatory for those responding to a given disaster, and how the initiative would be funded.
Nevertheless, Fainor is confident that blockchain will prove its mettle in disaster-response situations. She cites additional technologies that could further enhance relief efforts, including artificial intelligence and data analytics, which could be used to pinpoint weather patterns and other local conditions. They might even help in the crafting of response scenarios before a disaster occurs.
A full rollout of blockchain for disaster response is probably a couple of years away from reality, Fainor believes. Still, she says, “there’s lots of promise. We’re starting to see more and more projects every day. It takes a few big wins [to prove] that this is a technology that will scale.”
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