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Partners Employ Web Technology To Manage Emergencies

January 2009
By Rita Boland
E-mail About the Author

 
Food prepared by Southern Baptist Convention volunteers is loaded onto a Red Cross vehicle for distribution after Hurricane Ike. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has awarded a grant to AidMatrix to develop and provide to states technology to manage and share information about donations.
Federal agency funds the development and provision of a capability to improve the coordination of goods and services during response efforts.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has awarded a grant for online donations management to control resources coming in during disaster response. This thrust to share information virtually streamlines efforts among government and private organizations as well as individuals, increasing the efficiency of outreach and eliminating the burden of unusable supplies. Through the system, the government and its associates can fill needs in the right places with the right solutions with less trouble and more collaboration.

The nonprofit organization AidMatrix Foundation Incorporated, received the grant to implement the National Donations Management Network for states to use to request and manage donations in response to a disaster. AidMatrix gives the software to states that request it. The resulting portals allow the general public and service organizations to view needs in an affected area and to donate the appropriate material without granting access to the inner workings of the systems. Organizations such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army also use the technology to coordinate their efforts, including donations of goods, services and volunteer hours.

The software connects the needy with those who want to help by allowing organizations to post exactly what they need in a public viewing area. Other agencies and individuals can view that information and give as they are able. AidMatrix technology even enables collaboration on issues such as transportation. Someone, for example, might have the plywood an affected area needs but no way to move it to the right location. Someone else might view that gap and offer to transport the materials. “There have been examples of … pretty creative use of transportation,” says Ben Curran, voluntary agency coordinator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

By managing all donations online, voluntary and government organizations also can refuse inappropriate offers such as winter coats for a warm environment. In addition, needs can be posted and responded to in real time, and everyone can view the same information.

Because the provided technology creates portals, it can link states and national agencies such as FEMA and relief organizations. For example, if people visit a state Web site and click on the Red Cross link, they will be transferred to the state or national Red Cross donations page. The public also can visit the FEMA donations page or the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD)—a group of major service providers for disaster assistance—page and link in to other sites through the AidMatrix software. FEMA works closely with NVOAD. Needs are listed by states or voluntary organizations, and anyone who visits the FEMA site will be redirected to the state page. So, if people want to help areas affected by Hurricane Ike, they could visit the Texas state page and see what is required.

The portal not only enables the government to link state and national Web sites to those organizations, but NVOAD members also are active users. National and state members can see what is being offered and accept what they need.

Officials with FEMA encourage the public to donate through relief agencies and to send cash whenever possible because it is the most effective form of help during a crisis. Money is easily transportable, and local agencies can take cash and obtain goods and services to meet specific needs during a disaster. Donations of goods and services are welcome when they fill gaps, but cash allows agencies to obtain exact supplies. “That’s why we promote cash first,” Berl Jones, director of the individual assistance division at FEMA, says. The management system is necessary, because during a crisis, responder organizations are flooded with offers of help. “We are fortunate that we live in one of the most generous nations in the world,” Jones states. That generosity is never more evident than after a disaster, he adds.

To streamline all that assistance better, FEMA funded AidMatrix to develop and offer the core program, but the primary responsibility for managing donations during disaster response lies with the states, not the federal government. If states choose to use the software, they sign an agreement, and the core program is provided at no cost. Fees only come into play if states want to make modifications, but the core program is sufficient for what states need and most have chosen to use the initial offering. Though states are not required to use the software, FEMA encourages them to do so because it links the various parties involved in disaster assistance.

Despite states’ responsibility for their own donations management, FEMA is prepared to work with states and can step in and help if situations become overwhelming. States also have agreements to support each other during a crisis. “The state isn’t alone in this,” Jones explains.

As of November 2008, 30 state governments are using the AidMatrix technology and three additional governments—New York City, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.—also have implemented the technology. Jones explains that the number of organizations using the system grows as FEMA conducts training on its use. Developers continue to refine the software with lessons learned and new requirements that come up through work with states and volunteer organizations. FEMA has held three major requirements summits, each focused on a different sector—national, state and private.

 
Volunteers load the vehicles of local residents with ice, water and Red Cross lunches at the city hall parking lot in Shorecrea, Texas, after Hurricane Ike. The National Donations Management Network helps states and voluntary agencies better manage donations of money, goods and services after a disaster.
Improving the system will be an ongoing process, and federal officials understand that every state works differently. They try to be flexible and incorporate whatever states want to use to manage their donations. However, Jones explains that having a donations management concept in place has a benefit: “It standardizes the process so everyone knows how the system works.” Curran agrees and adds that states are pleased with the tool and have more confidence that they have the information management capabilities to help coordinate disasters.

Though much of FEMA’s work is with the states, the agency is committed to promoting voluntary organizations as the first place the private sector turns to respond to an emergency. Each voluntary agency lists specific information about how and what to donate to them so they can provide necessary materials to the afflicted. FEMA encourages individuals who want to donate time to affiliate with a voluntary organization and participate that way. For those who choose not to go through a voluntary agency, states can set up a program that allows individuals to register as volunteers through the state site.

Curran says the National Donations Management Network has been helpful because donors want to see what organizations need. By posting that information online, individuals or groups can simply connect to the Internet, find the list and provide what they can.

AidMatrix’s technology also can help organizations anticipate what type of help they might be asked to provide. U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), for example, is linked to the National Donations Management Network because the tool offers visibility to other users. Officials with the command use the software to track what people are donating and help predict what will be needed in terms of military response. By understanding the gaps in resource donations, NORTHCOM knows what assistance potentially could be required. The command started using the software during the string of hurricanes in summer 2008.

Joseph Catalino, a contractor who works in NORTHCOM’s private sector integration, domestic initiatives division in the interagency coordination directorate, explains that, “We do not search for or offer anything or solicit any resource at all.” The most that the command would do is take a phone call from a service group and help to facilitate conversations. Catalino says NORTHCOM mostly uses the network “for situational awareness for the command to piece together what’s going on out there.”

Catalino’s colleague, Lt. Col. Vaughn McCurry, USA, chief of the domestic initiatives division at NORTHCOM, says the tool helps enhance the overall picture for the commander, brings awareness and builds capacity in partnerships. “It only enhances basically the whole of government response,” he explains.

AidMatrix’s technology and interagency partnerships help satisfy resource dilemmas that otherwise would become federal issues. Federal response, according to Catalino, is less timely and more expensive than partner responses. He believes communities would rather have the help from the lowest level, which the AidMatrix technology helps facilitate. Most requests directed to NORTHCOM come through official channels. The National Donations Management Network is not a request tool for them, but an information sharing and collaboration capability among nongovernment and government organizations that lets everyone have the same situational awareness. This enables the fastest response time.

Timeliness and standardization are the big benefits of the AidMatrix software, Catalino says. Without this type of information sharing, he states, managing resources consists of people writing stuff down on napkins and passing them around. “It’s changing the culture of disaster response,” he says. The software reduces duplication of effort and moves agencies from stovepiped efforts to a more adaptive outlook. Some states and response organizations use technologies similar to the National Donations Management Network. NORTHCOM and other federal agencies are connected to some of those as well.

AidMatrix understands that organizations may have a different network to use, but recommends that designers make them compatible with the nonprofit’s technology. When compatible, linking other networks with AidMatrix technology is easy and inexpensive. Otherwise, connecting the systems becomes a difficult process. Scott McCallum, president and chief executive officer of AidMatrix, says that when a number of similar technologies are available, it becomes important to establish a common language of information sharing. “The AidMatrix network has become that common network,” he says.

The commonality extends beyond the United States and disaster response as well. AidMatrix has provided its technology to NATO, and in the first day after an earthquake in Kyrgyzstan in October 2008, 52 needs were entered onto that portal. The nonprofit’s technology is working on six continents. One of the keys to successfully integrating the various groups using the technology is having common data and standards. For example, some agencies may ask for gallons of water and an organization might have liters, requiring conversions and agreements. “You need a common way of communicating these things,” McCallum says.

The goal for AidMatrix is to help organizations, whether nonprofit, humanitarian, government or business, meet their information sharing and resource management requirements. “We try to empower the organizations that we’re working with,” McCallum explains. The major areas of focus for AidMatrix technology are food, medical and now disaster. Many charitable food donations are made through AidMatrix technology, linking companies such as Kraft, Sunkist, Coca-Cola and others to 220 food banks around the country. McCallum says $1.5 billion worth of food goes through the system annually.

In terms of medical needs, AidMatrix has technology enabling a program that matches medical products with free clinics. Through the software, providers can donate or sell at a discount, allowing those in need to obtain medical services at a lower rate.

For disaster relief situations, agencies post their needs so matches can be found internally or publicly. The system can search warehouses that are linked in to find resources as well. Large corporations could even use the technology for inventory control and connect directly to a charitable organization they want to support. McCallum says most states include 30 to 50 of the largest disaster relief charities on their portals, and some have added more.

According to McCallum, the beauty of the program is that everyone is connected. People can put items into the system to find charities that have the same need. He likens the AidMatrix technology to a hub with spokes reaching out to connect everything else. All that parties need are each other’s access codes, and all the work can be accomplished virtually.

AidMatrix donates much of the work it does—including some on the FEMA project—and because the basic portion of the platform is built, it can offer significantly reduced costs as it works with groups. The organization also works with governments and agencies to ensure they receive the best solution. For example, the government of India asked if a Global Positioning System feature could be added. AidMatrix said it could, but the addition would make the program heavier and harder for volunteers, and recommended against it. “As a nonprofit, we don’t try to sell more things,” McCallum explains. “We want it to work for them.”

In addition to its other projects, AidMatrix currently is working in Latin America and is in discussion with U.S. Southern Command for some capabilities. The nonprofit also is engaged in projects in the United States to list assets by business for disaster preparedness. Companies want to keep the information private so competitors cannot access it, but the databases will be ready and can work with the system quickly when a disaster strikes. Another project involves the U.S. Citizens Corps, which handles a lot of readiness training. Volunteers and training could all be linked through AidMatrix technology.

Web Resources
Federal Emergency Management Agency Donations: www.fema.gov/donations
National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster: www.nvoad.org
AidMatrix: www.aidmatrix.org
TexasResponds Donation Portal: www.texasresponds.org