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Making Magic

Getting the right aid to the right people in L3 (large scale) humanitarian disasters is a hard problem. I wrote MAGIC to track in real time aid planning, procurement and distribution. It was created for the UN in South Sudan. Read more about both MAGIC and South Sudan below..

South Sudan

Is a complicated place. Statistics on the country are shocking:

  • One out of every seven children dies before their fifth birthday
  • One of the worst maternal mortality rates in the world
  • One out of seven women who become pregnant will probably die from pregnancy-related causes
  • More than half of children between the ages of six and 13 are not in formal education
  • 84% of women cannot read or write. Only 6% of girls who start school ever finish
There is also of course an ongoing conflict with warlords, armed rebellions and clashes over cattle. Given this backdrop very few people here in South Sudan have hopes or fears which are entirely divorced from this conflict.

The fighting has been going on for so long that the root causes of the violence are difficult to know. South Sudan was established as a country in 2011 following a 20 year civil war with northern Sudan. This war was largely a religious and ethnic conflict which often descended into genocide - most famously in the Darfur region. Millions of civilians were killed.

Three years ago when South Sudan finally achieved it's independence from the north there was a great deal of optimism. But late last year a political battle between President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar ignited a new civil war. Because the two men were from different tribes the fighting has once again broken out along ethnic lines. Ethnic war is an an especially deadly sort of conflict because it can easily spill over into civilian populations.

Fighting in the new civil war is largely between the Dinka and the Nuer - South Sudan's two dominant tribes. When fighting broke out the Nuer stormed the gates of the UN to escape an unfolding massacre at the hands of Dinka fighters. Over the course of a few days thousands of Nuer were gunned down in the capital city where they represented a significant minority. In other parts of the country however Dinka were killed in equal measure in heavily Nuer regions.

South Sudan is of course also a country filled with millions of civilians who are desperately and with the greatest difficulty trying to transcend this history and establish a society based on democratic and egalitarian ideals. Burdened by decades of resentment, revenge and almost ceaseless fighting this is proving to be extremely difficult. I see it as my obligation to support them with this if I can and supporting them means giving them the correct items like seeds, fishing kits and fuel efficient stoves they need at the correct time to start to begin rebuilding their lives.

What is MAGIC

Maybe it helps to think of aid distribution as a sort of e-commerce system where aid items are 'products'. Instead of a 'customer' choosing which items to add into their cart we have to make a decision of who gets what based on the results of a countrywide Food Security Assessment (which classifies areas as either Stressed, Crisis, Emergency or Famine). Conceptually then we can create a shopping cart of items for each payam (a payam in South Sudan is like a District in the UK) and pass this info to other organizational units like LOA (Letters of Agreements or Contracts with Suppliers or NGO's), Procurement, Logistics, Distribution and so on.

Each unit can modify the cart either by updating its contents or changing its geographical location (in a warehouse, with an NGO partner etc). At any point we can establish where the 'shopping cart' of items is and we can generate reports and statistics about its passage through the MAGIC system all the way from food assessment through planning to doorstep delivery

One clear advantage to building the system this way is that we now can establish a link between 'donors' on one hand and 'recipients' on the other. To continue the e-commerce analogy without MAGIC donors would pay for a shopping cart of items and they would not know to whom these items had been delivered. With most L3 donations running into the millions of dollars this is a problem. A second advantage is more subtle but might be useful if we want to try to innovate on aid at some point in the future. If we wanted for example to allow donations not only from Governments but wanted to accept donations from anybody - perhaps raising money with Bitcoin then we could generate a report for each bitcoin donor and add that to the blockchain for historical record

Before all this though the system needs to work and be tested in the field. That is what I have been doing these last two weeks and it was great fun!

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 in Work  | Permalink |  Comments (0)
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