Famine in the Horn of Africa is calling attention to a great many problems, not least of which is that people can’t eat ones and zeros. Somehow food (or medicine or farming tools or mosquito nets) has to get physically from one location to another and then get to the right person in the right amount.

An awful lot of aid work is logistics management, and on paper it looks like the process of getting car parts to assembly plants or stone-washed jeans to shopping malls. But paper is one thing, and Somalia is another.

Most of us in the West have an image of aid distribution – a crowd of people pushing and crowding around a truck from which aid workers are tossing out packages. Pejoratively referred to in aid circles as “truck and chuck,” this scene is probably less common than a much more prosaic one, in which a long line of people wait for hours as their documents and sometimes fingerprints are checked manually before they receive their allocated ration.

This is less dangerous and generally more equitable than the truck and chuck, but it is inefficient for the aid workers and difficult and demeaning for the recipients.

Last Mile Mobile Solutions (LMMS), which is part of World Vision, a large international NGO that is active in relief work, has developed a very elegant mobile solution to manage aid distribution in the field.

  • The aid beneficiary is first registered by an aid worker using a PDA. Relevant information about age, family size, dwelling location and so on is entered into the device, which then takes a digital picture of the registrant which is used to create a ration ID card with a bar code. Cards can be printed on the location, if a printer is available, or centrally if it is not.
  • On subsequent visits to receive aid, the beneficiary presents the ID card which is scanned by an aid worker with a PDA. The PDA displays the picture associated with that ID, allowing the aid worker to verify that the beneficiary’s identity to prevent substitution. The PDAs are linked wirelessly to a laptop on the site, so accurate data is kept in real time.

According to a World Vision spokesperson, food distribution at even a large site takes no more than two hours – a process that used to take all day. (See "Second Screen Prospects in the Developing World: The NGO Market")