Coordinated Aid

Alabama creates a system to match donated goods and services to the needy just days after Hurricane Katrina.

by / February 3, 2006 0
After Hurricane Ivan struck Alabama in 2004, state officials started looking for a better way to coordinate assistance for people who needed it. A group of members of the Governor's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (GFBCI) explored some commercially available systems, but found nothing that was suitable for their needs, said Executive Director Terri Hasdorff.

The group talked with colleagues at the state's Emergency Management Agency (EMA) and its Information Services Division, and turned to officials of the National Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), who said a system was being developed, but a finished product was not yet available for use, Hasdorff said.

Then in summer 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept across the Gulf Coast, and the need for a new donations-management system rose to a critical level.


Coping With Catastrophe
An influx of money, goods and services inundated Alabama to help Katrina victims who lived in the state, and evacuees from Louisiana and Mississippi. The state created a link on the GFBCI Web site for people who wanted to donate cash.

"But the system we had for gathering money was not very sophisticated," said state CIO Jim Burns, noting that the system couldn't handle the volume of donations the state was receiving. Alabama still lacked a method to efficiently match donated goods and services with needs.

While state officials searched for a solution, Thomas Marshall, associate professor of management at Auburn University College of Business in Auburn, Ala., watched images of the hurricane's devastation on the news. A native of south Louisiana, he was worried about relatives back home, and said he wanted to make a meaningful contribution to the Katrina relief effort.

He had something to offer -- technology for developing data-management solutions -- because he runs a nonprofit organization called Data Management Institute for Technological Excellence (DMITE), which develops data systems for nonprofit organizations and academic institutions, with organization co-founder Robert Weighall.

DMITE helped the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., and Trenholm State Technical College in Montgomery, Ala., integrate Oracle technology into their curricula, and the institute is also developing a data management system for Alabama's Ronald McDonald House of Charities.

Marshall called Burns; Burns introduced Marshall to Hasdorff. The result -- just a few days later -- was the Alabama Volunteer and Donations Database System (AVADDS).


Match Game
Marshall describes AVADDS -- based on the Oracle Portal platform -- as a virtual community that helps individuals and agencies collaborate on relief and recovery efforts. AVADDS collects detailed information from people who want to donate money, goods or services to disaster relief.

Donors start the contribution process by following a link to complete a donation form. They may also call a toll-free number to speak with volunteers who enter the data for them. When the GFBCI receives goods into its warehouse, a worker notes the arrival in AVADDS.

Using the AVADDS management dashboard, a GFBCI "matching coordinator" can access Tracker, a communications system operated by the state EMA, to learn about specific requirements for volunteers and goods.

The dashboard is then used to fit the applicable criterion.

"If someone posted a need in Tracker, 'I need 500 cases of water,' that matching coordinator can go in and look in the warehouse and say, 'We've got 1,000 cases; let's send 500 to this county,'" Hasdorff said. "If people were needing 50 people trained in chain saws, and we just happened to have people call us from Philadelphia who said, 'We're trained in chain saws, and we have a team that's ready to come down at a moment's notice,' we would be able to make that match through the system as well."

Before starting work on AVADDS, Marshall called Dell, which agreed to donate an array of hardware to beef up the system, he said, adding that Micron Corp. helped by donating Flash and DRAM memory products to the project.

Marshall and Weighall met with Hasdorff, who explained what the system needed to do and how it should look. They also met with EMA officials to learn how Tracker worked. In addition, the state utilized the expertise of a disaster response specialist from Utah and a team of AmeriCorps volunteers from St. Louis who specialize in disaster response.

"We had them very closely working with us to set up this system, because they do this so often. They know how it needs to handle the volunteer aspect, and how it needs to handle the donated goods aspect," Hasdorff said.

One AmeriCorps volunteer eventually became the matching coordinator and others helped staff the call center.


Nights on the Floor
Once they understood what the GFBCI required of the system, Marshall and Weighall got down to the nitty-gritty.

"They worked for about four to six days on this, nonstop, all through the night, I believe," Hasdorff said.

"Yes, we did spend some nights on the office floor in between long stints of working," Marshall concedes.

Marshall and Weighall designed AVADDS to run on multiple computers, so more capacity can be added as the system requires more computing power, Marshall said. Auburn University hosts the system on its infrastructure.

The matching coordinator can browse AVADDS for good and services starting with a high-level category, such as "emergency medical capabilities," and then narrow the query to more detailed levels, such as "toxic recovery" or "pollution and environmental," Marshall said.

AVADDS also contains a sophisticated search engine, similar to Google, which the matching coordinator uses to locate goods and services that don't fit conventional categories, he said.

Along with Tracker, AVADDS has links to several other systems used to coordinate emergency relief. One is the White House's USA Freedom Corps Web site, which offers links for people who want to volunteer for hurricane relief in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi or Texas.

"If you go in through Freedom Corps and go into Alabama and say you want to volunteer there, it takes you to our site," Hardoff said, adding that volunteers can then sign up through AVADDS.

Other links include the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's National Emergency Resource Registry (NERR) and its regional SouthWest Emergency Response Network (SWERN), both of which give the matching coordinator further options for arranging assistance.

"We can go in through NERR and pull down things into our warehouse," Hasdorff said. "Maybe someone through the SWERN system knows there's a need in Mississippi or someplace for something we have in Alabama. We can communicate with them."

State officials will continue to use AVADDS to coordinate disaster relief in the future.

"I view this as something that will be a long-sustained partnership between Auburn University and ourselves," Hasdorff said, noting that a system like AVADDS should be ready at all times so it can be turned on at the flick of a switch.

"The system obviously can be retrofitted for a wide variety of needs -- anything from a tornado in Tuscaloosa to a mudslide in Huntsville," she said.

At Auburn University, Marshall and Weighall continue to refine AVADDS through the addition of telephony and wireless capabilities, Marshall said, with the goal of creating better coordination among various volunteer agencies.

In the future, Alabama officials want to integrate AVADDS with other systems used to coordinate volunteers on the national level, such as the ones being developed by the National VOAD and the Points of Light Foundation, Hasdorff said. They also want to make AVADDS available outside Alabama.

"We want it to be something other states can utilize," she said. "It was built with that understanding, that it would be a model, possibly, for other states."
Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer