• WisBusiness

Monday, January 25, 2010

Technology has made it easier to donate after a disaster -- and more efficient


By Tom Still
Record-breaking numbers of people have text-messaged $10 pledges to the American Red Cross to help the relief effort in Haiti. Companies and other large groups have coordinated sophisticated deliveries of cash, goods, equipment and even volunteers through the Internet, also to help that earthquake-ravaged nation.

In ways large and small, technology is taking some of the disaster out of disaster relief.

Anyone who has watched a National Football League playoff game since a series of Jan. 12 earthquakes devastated Haiti has seen the "Text 'Haiti' to 90999" program of the Red Cross, which has worked with mGive.com and a dozen mobile carriers to raise tens of millions of dollars.

That's an example of how technology has made it easier for small donors to give -- and people have responded. Another avenue with strong Wisconsin ties is a prime example of how technology has also made it more efficient for larger companies and groups to give, and for recipients to effectively make use of a wide range of donations.

The Aidmatrix Foundation (http://aidmatrix.org) has become something of an eBay for the charitable and disaster-relief worlds. It uses the power of the Internet to get the right aid to the right people at the right time -- mainly by connecting willing donors with recipients and, sometimes more important, the right transportation channels.

Led by former Wisconsin Gov. Scott McCallum and powered in part by servers managed by Madison-based Supranet, Aidmatrix works with more than 35,000 partners each year to mobilize $1.5 billion in donations. Its supply-chain management system offers a virtual one-stop shop for donors and end users, whether those groups are involved in disasters such as the Haiti earthquake or the everyday crisis of feeding hungry people through America's food pantries.

McCallum, who joined Aidmatrix as its chief executive officer five years ago, said the system has been busily connecting donated resources to Haiti, ranging from large supplies of water to food, fuel and medical supplies. It is working directly with the U.S. military's Southern Command, which is providing military support capabilities to civil authorities to help stabilize and improve the situation in Haiti.

Last week, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced it will use Aidmatrix's network. Aidmatrix is also working with Project HOPE, the International Society of Transport Aircraft Trading, the American Logistics Aid Network and others to post needs, accept donation offers and to help match those offers to needs. As McCallum explained, that's done without Aidmatrix physically handling goods or equipment.

"We never take control of any product, nor do we make the decision where things go," he said. "We don't control the system. We help it function more efficiently through technology and the marketplace itself."

For example, Aidmatrix can pinpoint supplies that may be located in a warehouse in Spain, which can be directed to Haiti through volunteer transport services that may come from one of 8,000 providers. Emergency care workers and government or non-profit "allocators" at a disaster site decide what donations they need most.

"It might be a case of, 'Please send more water; hold the clothing and Teddy Bears for now,' and that message can be relayed throughout our system," McCallum said. "It helps others fill their most urgent priorities. If nobody needs a certain product, it never moves."

But even hard-to-move donations sometimes find a home. McCallum noted that a donation of carpet remnants from California eventually found its way to Iowa following flooding there in 2008.

Aidmatrix is the network for virtually handling most donated food in the United States, all without owning a single warehouse or truck. America's Second Harvest, the United Nations Food Programme, the National Association of Free Clinics and First Book are among major partners.

It also works with 46 states and the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Administration, and the 50-person organization is competing to become the technology hub for food pantries in one of Europe's largest nations.

"My goal is pretty straightforward," McCallum said. "We want donated goods from across the world to move through our network to find a home. If we can do it better and faster through our partners, donors and recipients alike are winners."

It's a goal that could make a life-or-death difference in Haiti, or the next inevitable place where disaster might strike.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is a member of the Aidmatrix Foundation advisory board for the Americas.

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