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Source: Jessica Heier Stamm, 785-532-3726,
News release prepared by: Tina Long, 785-532-3720,

Thursday, March 17, 2011


MANHATTAN -- Effective disaster relief efforts -- like those needed in earthquake- and tsunami-stricken Japan -- depend on coordination and collaboration of supply chain management, according to a Kansas State University logistics expert.

Jessica Heier Stamm is a K-State assistant professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering whose research focuses on improving logistics for humanitarian response and public health efforts.

"Every supply chain faces challenges in delivering the right quantity and type of product to the right place at the right time," Heier Stamm said. "However, designing and managing systems to deliver aid to those affected by natural disasters is especially difficult given additional challenges, such as damaged infrastructure and constantly changing conditions."

One such factor that is frequently overlooked but has a significant impact is the influence of multiple and decentralized decision makers, Heier Stamm said.

"A wide range of entities are often involved in these supply chains, including government, military, private and nongovernmental organizations, and individuals," she said. "While they all share a common goal -- to help people affected by the disaster -- each party operates based on its own objectives and levels of information, which often lead to duplication of efforts, waste and in the worst cases, aid not reaching those who need it most."

Traditional optimization approaches advocate the adoption of a centralized decision maker to coordinate the entire response, she said.

"But in disaster scenarios this is frequently impractical or impossible," Heier Stamm said. "Through my research I'm identifying methods and novel approaches that enable decentralized systems to approximate the performance of centralized systems."

Heier Stamm saw firsthand the positive effect of disaster relief supply chain coordination and collaboration on a visit to Haiti in May 2010. She and a group from Georgia Tech studied the practices of the Salvation Army, which had taken on management responsibilities for a camp for displaced persons. Through a special collaboration with UPS, camp personnel were able to better manage data and supply distribution using the shipping giant's Trackpad handheld scanner system. UPS Trackpad is a registered trademark.

"Until their collaboration with UPS, the Salvation Army was using a paper system to register the 4,000 families in the camp and to track distributions," Heier Stamm said. "Using the Trackpad system, not only were data management and supply distribution greatly improved in the camp, but the agency was better able to coordinate with partner agencies, leading to improved conditions for camp residents."

The opportunities to expand the use and impact of technologies like the Trackpad in the humanitarian relief context are many and extend beyond camp management, she said. But important questions about implementation remain, including the best ways to allocate the costs and benefits of an electronic system to encourage broad adoption by humanitarian responders. Designing such systems often involves finding ways to model and solve difficult optimization problems, which is where research plays a key role in improving response efforts.

"Every disaster response is unique, but it will be interesting to follow the events of the coming days and weeks to see how lessons learned in previous disasters are applied to this current international effort," Heier Stamm said.

"As response to these types of disasters becomes more global, there also seems to be a greater understanding of the importance of improved supply chain systems to coordinate the efforts of many decentralized organizations," she said. "Success in humanitarian relief efforts is not only measured in lives saved, but also in quality of life for survivors. As a result of my research, I hope approaches are developed and adopted within the international relief community to improve disaster response efforts and minimize the short- and long-term human toll of disasters."

Heier Stamm's research has been supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship while a doctoral student at Georgia Tech, as well as National Science Foundation grants to her research collaborators at Georgia Tech. Her research at K-State is being supported by internal start-up funds.