Adapting Mobile Database Technology to Unconventional Humanitarian Aid Situations Produces Life Altering Results
In 2006, in the airport in São Paulo, Brazil, Otto Farkas noticed something so ubiquitous, for most of us, it's just part of the background scenery of our lives. Airport employees were placing bar code stickers on passengers' boarding passes, which were then scanned as they passed through security. While it was certainly not the first time Farkas had been in an airport, nor the first time he'd encountered bar code technology, on that particular occasion it constituted an "Aha!" moment.
Farkas, who is the Director of Humanitarian and Emergency Affairs in the Resource Development and Collaborative Innovation Department of World Vision Canada, suddenly saw the technology in a whole new light. If airport staff could process tens of thousands of passengers a day using such a straightforward and well established technology, why, he wondered, couldn't humanitarian organizations like World Vision use such technology to increase the efficiency and accountability of their aid work around the world.
Then and there Last Mile Mobile Solutions (LMMS) was conceived.
"We were looking for a way to make a significant improvement in the way humanitarian aid is delivered to increase our efficiency, effectiveness and our ability to document and analyze our operations to make continuous improvements," explains Farkas. "Historically, humanitarian aid distributions have been managed in the field using manual, paper–based systems, which have proven to be inefficient, labor-intensive, prone to human error and vulnerable to fraud. We knew the technology existed to automate manual, paper-based processes and was in use in a variety of private sector environments. In a generic sense, our data collection and verification processes were very similar to those in private sector implementations of mobile technology solutions. Of course, many of our projects are implemented in very challenging environments where power and communications are intermittent or lacking, and where war and civil conflict are added complicating factors. So we knew that whatever we developed had to be able to operate in those kinds of environments. Still, there was a compelling rationale for moving forward."
World Vision Canada, part of the World Vision International family is a global child –focused Christian humanitarian and development organization that provides a variety of services to more than 100 million people around the globe.Through World Vision Canada, Canadians sponsor over half a million children around the world. Their sponsorship helps fund World Vision Canada's international long-term development projects. The organization distributes three hundred to four hundred thousand metric tons of food each year as well as other aid like blankets, mosquito nets, tools and construction materials to people in countries and communities that have been devastated by natural disasters or who are suffering from hunger due to famine, wars, civil conflicts and other factors.
Paper-Based Systems Time Consuming and Error Prone
Prior to the development and implementation of LMMS, World Vision field teams would arrive at a location and begin by registering aid recipients (beneficiaries) either at centralized sites or by going door to door, from household to household. They would gather information including the names of the members of each household, the types of aid required (food, medicine, non-food rations, and other assistance, and identify the authorized recipient by obtaining a signature and thumb print. This was all done on paper, and the information had to be re-gathered and verified each time there was an aid operation in a specific location.
Simply collecting the data using this manual system could take a few minutes to 20 minutes for each beneficiary depending on the size of the family, the type and amount of information collected, the literacy of the family and other issues. Moreover, the process, as with all paper-based processes, was prone to errors and susceptible to fraud.
Once the delivery phase of an operation began, the paper-based process again was problematic. People often traveled long distances to distribution sites and waited for hours in line to collect their food and other aid. Beneficiary verification and delivery of the correct amount of aid was a very timely and tedious process as aid workers flipped through pages and pages of handwritten documentation. Even if the distribution process proceeded without problems, it was long and difficult for both the beneficiaries and the aid workers. When questions arose regarding the identity of a claimant or the amount of aid to be delivered, that further lengthened the process as aid workers scrambled to solve the problem.
LMMS has substantially changed all of this…for the better.
Automating Humanitarian Aid Field Operations
Following up on the idea to adapt private-sector mobile data collection, management and analysis technology to humanitarian aid settings, World Vision Canada began searching for a technology partner with whom to quickly prototype a solution and deliver a proof of concept. Its search led it to Sybase partner, FieldWorker Products Limited.
This Toronto based company, is a leading provider and enabler of mobile data solutions. It delivers rapid application development utilities and tool kits for integrators, software developers, corporations and governments. Its FieldWorker Enterprise solution was designed expressly to extend corporate databases and applications into the field to replace paper-based processes. It enables workers in the field (working either on- or offline) to collect and move critical data from where they collect it to where it's needed – either in the field or in corporate offices where it can be maintained, analyzed and used for a variety of purposes.
As a rapid application development solution, FieldWorker Enterprise furnishes organizations with a complete, proven, enterprise mobile data collection and synchronization solution at a fraction of the cost of in-house or customized solutions. This allows organizations to save critical capital upfront and reduce support and expansion costs down the road.
"Looking at World Vision's operations in terms of business processes," says Peter Neve, President and COO of FieldWorker Products Limited, "they're really quite analogous to the data collection and management processes we see in our private sector customers. The one initial question we all had was whether it would be technically and financially feasible to use in the types of harsh environments in which World Vision's field staff operate. As it's turned out, it is. Using Fieldworker Enterprise to develop LMMS enabled rapid development and implementation of the solution and has enabled World Vision to increase its efficiency and effectiveness in the field and to quickly gather the information it needs to conduct humanitarian missions. It also enables World Vision to analyze and report on its activities to help it continue to make a compelling case for support among its donors."
LMMS: Powered by SQL Anywhere
LMMS consists of a roaming server (a laptop) that runs the LMMS software to administer the aid program. This includes beneficiary registration, creation of distribution plans and project reporting. Field staff collect registration data, verify beneficiary identities and document aid distribution using ruggedized Intermec handheld devices (equipped with touch screens, barcode scanners and cameras), which are connected via a wireless connection, when available, or a cradle to the roaming server.
As field staff collect beneficiary information in the registration phase of projects, they produce photo and bar-coded identification cards on the spot for those beneficiaries. Information resides on both the handheld devices and on the roaming server and is pushed through the Sybase SQL Anywhere databases. SQL Anywhere, in fact, is embedded in all FieldWorker Enterprise solutions. The handheld devices run the UltraLite implementation of SQL Anywhere as well as SQL Anywhere's MobiLink synchronization technology. The roaming servers run the server version of SQL Anywhere, Sybase's high performing and embeddable relational database-management system that scales from thousands of users in server environments down to desktop and mobile applications used in widely deployed, zero-administration environments.
"We've been using SQL Anywhere to power our FieldWorker Enterprise solution for more than eight years," says Craig Tyndall, General Manager of FieldWorker. "We haven't seen a mobile, embeddable, always available data management solution in all that time that can match its performance, scalability, synchronization functionality and zero maintenance requirements. It just runs. In fact, most customers don't even know it's there, which is what you really want in this kind of technology."
Field staff can move around the distribution sites with the wireless handheld devices. The number of handhelds used per roaming server can vary from three to eight units depending on beneficiary numbers. For each roaming server, 200-2000 households can be assisted at any given time. The system is scalable to allow for multiple distributions in multiple locations simultaneously.
The LMMS solution on roaming servers makes it possible to analyze the status and impact of operations more quickly than in the past and to share that information with donors and partner organizations.
A Truly Mission-Critical Success
LMMS was first piloted in 2008 for use in World Food Program (WFP) supported programs in Kenya and Lesotho, it was then deployed in Zimbabwe, Haiti and Uganda in 2010, Zambia, Tanzania and Niger in 2011 and more planned in the future. LMMS was developed in a modular fashion to allow new applications to be developed by World Vision as needed. In addition to the initial general food distribution module, new applications have been introduced to automate processes for targeted feeding, food for assets and cash for work activities. After the devastating earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, LMMS was adapted to address emergency aid delivery, including distribution of non-food items.
A recent independent study conducted in Haiti by Accenture Development Partnerships found significant time and cost savings across beneficiary registration, pre-distribution, distribution, and reporting activities. While savings could vary depending on a variety of factors, the study revealed at least 50 percent time savings for a single project. In the case of multiple distributions, projected time savings increased up to 90 percent over the old, paper-based, manual system.
LMMS has also proven quite reliable in many of the world's harshest environments for advanced technology. And because of its intuitive design, using simple touch screen check boxes and drop-down menus, training requirements have been minimal.
Most important, says Farkas, "When we use the LMMS system, the people who are receiving aid say they feel a sense of empowerment because the system is more reliable. With their own ID cards and picture verification, they do not have to give away their fingerprints, and feel more included in the distribution process. They also spend less time waiting in queues, which reduces overall tension and personal security risks at distribution sites, while freeing up time to care for children and do other critical household and income-generating activities. By using LMMS the World Vision field workers become ‘knowledge workers', allowing every transaction to become a data collection opportunity which further informs analysis, decision making and planning of aid efforts. And, of course, LMMS allows aid agencies and donors to account for where aid has been distributed, right down to the household level.
"If you have ever been to relief situations," adds Farkas, "you can find an excuse for any inefficiency. Thanks to LMMS, we don't have to.'