03/20/2013 05:32 EDT | Updated 05/20/2013 05:12 EDT

The Technology Bringing Global Humanitarian Relief

Three months after Typhoon Bopha battered the Philippines, people in the hardest-hit areas are still struggling to rebuild. Field workers with humanitarian relief and development agency World Vision have found an unexpected ally in the form of a cutting-edge technology.

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Children sit on improvised chairs as they wait for relief goods in New Bataan, Compostela province on December 12, 2012 nearly one week after the southern part of the Philippines was hit by Typhoon Bopha. The death toll from the strongest typhoon to hit the Philippines this year has climbed above 700 with hundreds more missing, many of them tuna fishermen feared lost at sea, the government said on December 11. AFP PHOTO/TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)

Three months after Typhoon Bopha battered the Philippines, people in the hardest-hit areas are still struggling to rebuild. Field workers with humanitarian relief and development agency World Vision have found an unexpected ally in the form of a cutting-edge technology. Aaron Aspi, emergency communications specialist with World Vision Philippines, tells the story.

Lolita had walked for an hour through scorching heat, carrying her two-year-old daughter in her arms. She had traversed snake-infested grasslands and a dusty dirt road, heading for the nearest emergency food distribution centre.

It was the latest of many challenges. In early December, Typhoon Bopha ripped apart Lolita's home. It either destroyed or blew away everything that the family owned. In the aftermath, they moved to the outskirts of the village, near the fields where Lolita's husband works.

Lolita shows her ID card, confident that her sack of rice will be ready for her.

Lolita herself had worked hard over the past 10 days, helping plant a community vegetable garden through a World Vision food-for-work program. She had come to the distribution centre to collect her payment: a large sack of rice.

A change for the better

Earlier trips to the distribution centre had been an exercise in frustration. Because the family's ID documents had been destroyed in the typhoon -- and a manual error meant her name was omitted from the list of eligible beneficiaries -- Lolita had to make the case that her family should receive help.

But today, Lolita was smiling as she lowered her daughter to the ground. She was holding a bar-coded ID card with her name and picture. The lineup was much shorter than the four-hour queue she remembered.

The old paper-pen-thumbprint system World Vision used to use has been replaced with a new technology called Last Mile Mobile Solutions (LMMS), a combination of hand-held scanners and advanced computer software. A World Vision staff member quickly retrieved Lolita's profile, providing the rice to which she was entitled.

After everything they've endured, it was good to see Lolita and others so at ease. Today, they were exchanging laughs while looking at their photos on the cards. There's less tension over whether there will be enough supplies on hand, because the system has helped World Vision workers calculate and anticipate the need. People like Lolita can rest easy the night before they come, knowing that no one else can claim the food that's been set aside for them.

A World Vision worker creates an ID card for a woman who has been identified as needing humanitarian assistance.

Quickly and with dignity

'Last Mile Mobile Solutions' refers to the point at which emergency aid reaches the hands of those who need it most. We want this to happen quickly and efficiently, in a way that preserves the person's dignity.

Here in the Philippines, we had heard of this new technology, developed by World Vision Canada and already used in emergencies in 14 countries. But this is the first time we've actually had a chance to try it. LMMS indeed makes things much quicker, as staff members no longer have to spend countless hours compiling profiles, organizing paperwork and typing data into computers. The potential for error or omission was high, as Lolita found out.

Now, with a swipe of the hand-held scanner, Lolita's rice pickup is instantaneously registered in a database. It's as simple as getting your boarding pass scanned at the airport. Staff can make decisions in real time, rather than finding out too late that rice is running short. Partnering with the World Food Programme, World Vision is delivering aid to 78,000 individuals in the southern Philippines. It's important to keep all of the information straight if we're to anticipate and meet families' needs on time and on budget.

Without laborious data entry and complex paperwork, World Vision staff members can spend more time talking with families and children, learning about their needs. Staff now have a little time to rest after travelling long distances each day. When a recovery effort continues around the clock for months as this one has done, this rest can make the difference between continuing and collapsing.

The next step

The lineups move quickly now that World Vision is no longer operating with pen, paper and thumbprints. The ID cards and computer software bring up everyone's profiles and entitlements instantaneously.

While World Vision is working hard to help families' regain their independence, it may be awhile before those hit hardest by Bopha no longer need the help of humanitarian agencies. Lolita may be back to this food distribution point, as part of the work-for-food program. Or her family may need the help of another agency, for another reason.

That's where Last Mile Mobile Solutions could be doubly helpful in the near future.

"Vital information about families, including their size and their particular needs, can soon be shared among relief organizations," explains Pat Ryan Gaid, who monitors operations of the system on the ground in the Philippines. That means someone like Lolita, receiving help from more than one agency, wouldn't have to prove her eligibility each time she needs to get a blanket or a cooking pot.

The right aid at the right time

Back in Canada, World Vision's Otto Farkas, the man who came up with the idea for LMMS after observing how handheld scanners are used at airports to manage passengers, will be helping eight other agencies incorporate the system into their work. Oxfam Great Britain and Medair will be among those working together to provide a net of protection for families like Lolita's.

"We'll get a much better sense of whether we're providing the right aid to people at the right time," says Otto, a senior adviser for Innovation and Partnering with World Vision International.

"The information we share will help us to identify families like Lolita's, and to meet their needs. We won't have to keep re-enrolling them in new programs. We'll know which families have young children, or pregnant or lactating mothers. We'll be better able to anticipate and provide the special care that they need in a crisis."