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Mapping Technology Helps Direct Relief Pinpoint Its Assistance One Disaster at a Time

In real time, high-tech tools provide a sharper focus and a more immediate response for nonprofit organization's global reach

Let’s say someone wanted a tool to identify the neediest natural disaster victims or the areas most affected by infectious diseases, or even to help military forces hunting for terrorists.

That type of tracking technology was unheard of just a few years ago, but has since stolen the spotlight as Direct Relief, a Goleta-based nonprofit organization, puts the software and its work on the map — literally.

Direct Relief’s aim is in the name: to better direct relief efforts and medical assistance to people around the world who have been affected by poverty, natural disasters or civil unrest.

Technology originally intended for military and intelligence use, courtesy of data-analysis firm Palantir, has been employed by Direct Relief to predict where medicine, food and other supply needs would be greatest.

Anyone affected by the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Japan's 2011 earthquake and tsunami or Hurricane Sandy in 2012 has likely reaped benefits from Direct Relief’s directed donation flow.

And Direct Relief can now add to its list of accolades critical assistance during the federal government's partial shutdown.

Andrew Schroeder, director of research and analysis at Direct Relief, said its analysts are tracking trends and creating health maps to show where and when flu cases are occurring in the United States — work that typically would be conducted by federal agencies that recently have been forced to shutter as a result of the funding standoff in Washington.

“We can ballpark where our network is relative to how influenza is shifting around the country,” Schroeder told Noozhawk. “You just don’t realize how much data so many people depend on from the federal government.”

Schroeder explained that Direct Relief has been working to fill such gaps in government and relief since its founding in Santa Barbara in 1948.

In more recent years, Direct Relief has been able to use geographic information system technology to better understand problems around the globe and to determine how people can collaborate to solve them.

Schroeder said the Haiti earthquake turned Direct Relief on to sharing its newfound mapping skills with the public and government agencies, creating a trustworthy level of transparency that could be verified in real time by — and inspire confidence in — the individuals donating toward relief efforts.

“One of the things we want to be able to do is track shipments all over the world,” he said. “That then can be shown to the companies that are donating support to us.

"That’s extremely important to how we actually do business. This is a way to show what could seem like kind of an abstract idea for global distribution efforts.”

After Hurricane Sandy, Direct Relief’s software helped direct ground efforts by mapping what pharmacies were still open in the New York City area despite power outages, as well as open gas stations and subsequent assistance.

Direct Relief has also seen success via an online ordering platform modeled after Amazon.com, which allows donors — and medical staff — to look at needed supplies and inventory in real time.

“We want to be as open as possible about where every dollar is spent,” Schroeder said.

As for what’s on the horizon, Schroeder said Direct Relief has ongoing efforts in Haiti and several new projects in the works, including a new mapping project that goes live Monday and examines the highly variable nature of implementation for the new Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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