I don’t know one Australian who hasn’t done everything in their power to do what they can to assist those affected by the devastating bushfires last week.
In addition to the record $100 million raised, generous donors from here and overseas have pledged everything from grazing land to walking frames.
Aid and government organisations too have been quick to assist those in need.
However, there’s been one massive logistic problem with co-ordinating the relief effort, and that has been with the donation of goods and services.
Unlike cash donations, which obviously can be transferred digitally and then managed easily, goods and services require that transfer from a physical location be involved as well as a means of co-ordinating the communication between donor and recipient.
The co-ordination of an exercise that involves ongoing communication between literally millions of people and businesses is no walk in the park.
The request for goods needs to be communicated to the media who in turn broadcast this to the public. Respondees must then try to get connected via phonelines that aren’t set up for such an influx, and often give up trying.
Once successful donations are recorded, transportation needs to be arranged. Then, as has happened time and time again during this appeal, an excess of supply can occur, requiring not only to be physically managed and then transported elsewhere, but the media again need to communicate a “stop donating” message back to the public.
Of course for a campaign as big as this, such an exercise ties up millions of dollars in labour on all of the communication, transportation, co-ordination and administration tasks.
In the meantime, those that wanted to donate in the first place but couldn’t get through are left disappointed at not being able to contribute something that, given the current economic conditions, may be all they could give.
No wonder the Red Cross said a blanket “no” to in-kind donations.
All this though, when self-managing online “registry” technology is commonplace and in some cases free.
In other words, notwithstanding those that don’t have computers and internet connections, a large portion of the population and of course the vast majority of businesses, could simply register their donation and contact details at a central online destination. Those seeking donations of goods and services could not only check such a registry for existing donations, but if not yet there, post a request for same.
Sensing the overwhelming response to the appeal and possessing some understanding of both the financial costs and opportunity costs of co-ordinating goods and service donations, two days after the fires I approached a local Oxfam group that my firm has sponsored in the past.
My idea was that by using standard wiki technology, we could quickly and relatively easily set up an online registry of goods and services donations from the public and business as well as donation requests from those affected and the aid bodies assisting them.
Typically, the chair of the group Brian Moran was conservative in thinking that such a thing could be done in time and without a budget. But within a few hours I Google-searched for a free wiki service, found one that fitted the bill, and set up a demo site.
The site had some features that would provide a massive saving in the co-ordination of donations.
With only a modicum of computer skills, donors could log on to the website, click an “edit” button and type in details of their donation and contact information. By clicking “save” the listing was online for the world to see.
Not only that, but the system allowed you to be notified by email when a page was updated – allowing real-time communication of a donation to a recipient.
In essence, the registry would put donors and recipients in direct contact with each other and cut out a myriad of aforesaid co-ordination and logistics, saving a fortune for all concerned and drastically reducing the time involved in communicating recipient requirements.
No, the system wasn’t perfect. Being essentially a community notice board, users could easily erase or alter content left by others. Yes fraudsters could take advantage of the registry and claim donations meant for those affected. And yes, yet others could abuse the system by using contact details for their own dastardly ends.
But this was a disaster that required urgent action, as the number of those affected that went without homes, property, cash, livelihoods and sadly, loved ones was so massive.
A faulty but ultimately effective solution would have to do for the timebeing.
And effective it has become. After being frustrated at trying to communicate the existence of the registry to the relevant authorities, the breakthrough came when group chair Brian Moran contacted talkback radio hosts to tell them of the registry and the massive cost and time savings it could provide.
Within minutes of airing, the registry sprung to life – pages magically filling with the donations of generous people from all over Victoria. And eventually the requests of those who had suffered so terribly began to filter through.
Finally we could put donors and recipients in direct contact with each other and cut out the myriad of middle people and processes.
And hopefully it will help the desperately needy survivors of the bushfire a small step towards recovery.
This is a prime example of how collaborative web 2.0 technology can drastically improve communications, logistics and productivity. Perhaps there are ways that your organisation can benefit from such an initiative.
The registry can be accessed via www.fitzroyoxfam.org.au . We welcome any contribution you can make!