The Tragedy in Haiti

The disaster could be worsened by problems coordinating the response.
Published: January 20, 2010

Like the rest of the world, I have been sitting in front of my television, watching in horror the reports of Haiti’s devastation. I don’t mean to trivialize the suffering going on in that country by injecting RFID into the discussion, when all focus should be on rescuing the victims. But as I watch the rescue efforts, I can not help but recall a conversation I had last year with a disaster relief coordinator from the United Nations. He wanted my advice regarding whether radio frequency identification could help in situations like the one in Haiti.

“The problem we have is that when a natural disaster strikes, you usually have no electrical power and little cell phone coverage in the affected area,” he explained. “Relief supplies come pouring in from around the world, but when you are on the ground, you don’t know what is arriving and you can’t call anyone. I’ve seen millions of dollars worth of life-saving drugs spoil on the tarmac of an airport, because no one knew what was in the cartons and didn’t distribute it.”

This forward-thinking executive sought a solution. I said I thought RFID could help, if aid groups agreed on a standard for tagging relief supplies. You could use battery-powered RFID handhelds and portal readers to identify goods as they arrive. These might need to be supported by generators, and to be hardened against the harsh weather of a hurricane. Either the boxes’ contents could be written to the tags, or workers could use mobile satellite communications to connect to servers outside of the stricken area, in order to determine what is arriving.

Relief workers at a base of operations in, say, New York, London or Tokyo could monitor the use of supplies and order replenishments as necessary. Goods could be identified as they are loaded onto trucks, and GPS could be utilized to track those vehicles. That would be useful for managing the distribution of drugs and other medical supplies to hospitals still functioning.

I would love to see the RFID industry step up and donate such a system to the United Nations, so that the next time there is a disaster, relief workers on the ground could do a more effective job of getting supplies to those who need them. These workers operate a supply chain under the most difficult circumstances imaginable, and RFID could make it work better for the victims of a disaster.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog or click here.