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Blockchain for Disaster Relief: Creating Trust Where It Matters Most

Feature Article | November 14, 2017 by Jeanette Rohr Hot Story

In spite of countries and non-governmental organizations being swift to react when disaster strikes, humanitarian efforts are often harmed by a lack of transparency between different relief parties.

Blockchain is able to quickly and easily spin up an independent system of record that could be key to providing quicker, more effective help for people affected by an emergency.

In January 2010 a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, inducing one of the direst humanitarian catastrophes of all time. Within 24 hours, over 20 nations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were on the move to provide disaster relief that ranged from recovery operations and medical support to distribution of food and water. Combining their efforts to work more efficiently, the relief parties each brought specific resources and know-how.  Subsequently, however, the United Nations revealed that collaboration and efficiency were hindered by the absence of a common communication channel and the use of too many unstructured data sources, such as email and social media.

Imagine the following: The French, who contribute with medical support to a relief mission, want to bring doctors to a certain area of the island, but they have no idea how. Meanwhile, the U.S. has three helicopters to offer nearby. How do they immediately know that their requirements and offerings match?

Even if the saving assets are available, there is currently no swift and reliable option to make the other parties aware of what is needed. Establishing a shared system of record can advance disaster response, but will also have to address challenges such as ownership of the system and data sovereignty of the parties involved.

Disaster Relief Requires Partner Interoperability

There can be no doubt that mankind has made amazing progress in terms of disaster aid. With partners from different nations and NGOs joining efforts, it isn’t up to one disaster-stricken country or people anymore to cope with the fallout on their own. But operations that are executed by various parties and require quick action entail certain challenges. Governmental organizations that are sent to disaster areas often involve defense forces which are, by nature, not keen on providing insights into their systems of operation. Unfortunately, this reasonable reluctance to reveal sensitive data can lead to potentially life-saving information being delayed or inaccessible. The greatest strength of these joint efforts can also become their greatest weakness.

Disaster situations call for the absolute transparency that only a distributed network can provide

Employing federated systems is the traditional approach to multi-party operations. Their technological complexity makes them difficult to set up in situations where there is literally no time to lose. In addition, there are security risks involved that make partners hesitant to provide insights into their resource capacities. However, disaster situations call for the absolute transparency, seamless interoperability, and information exchange in real time among helping parties that only a distributed network can provide.

This is where blockchain comes in.

Creating Trust, But Also Efficiency

Blockchain technology allows central systems of relief mission participants — for example, the UN, national humanitarian aid, NGOs, and others — to connect via a distributed network. For the involved parties this means:

  • Distributed power: All parties are equally entitled and can continue to use their own resource planning system.
  • Partner interoperability: The blockchain provides a single source of truth for all operations that is updated in real time. Every party can access the transaction history.
  • Ad hoc capabilities: Parties can join or leave the network at any time.
  • Privacy: Parties keep their data sovereignty and don’t have to expose their resource capacities to other participants.

Getting back to the Haiti scenario, the French would enter a request for airlift by helicopter in the app that is broadcast to all mission participants via blockchain. All other parties could instantly see the request and react with a specific offer. The U.S. could then provide one of its three helicopters to be on site in 30 minutes.

By using a Smart Contract — a simple, open algorithm embedded in the blockchain, ensuring that the parties stick to commonly agreed rules — offers that match requests could automatically be accepted and help could be provided without delay. The history of the transactions would be securely saved to the blockchain.

While not a reality yet, this scenario is one reason why SAP sees blockchain as a promising way to simplify complex multi-party processes and create trust among participants. With expertise in 25 industries and across 12 lines of business, SAP is exploring blockchain technology to unveil its potential: It can help the world run better and improve people’s lives – literally.

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