Jon Wong

The Beginning of We Have, We Need

Reposted from the blog of We Have, We Need

As part of the Teams in Engineering Service (TIES) program here at UCSD, we are expected to do our darndest to make a difference in the world by working closely with nonprofit organizations. Our team, the Information Network: Haiti, has partnered with Haiti MPHISE to help solve one of the biggest hindrances to relief organizations and NGOs in disaster zones like Haiti: dealing with supplies.

Oftentimes we hear stories of doctors, nurses, and EMTs packing as much as they possibly can before they head out to a disaster zone. Supply manifests are usually kept private, and once they reach their destination they operate with the constraint that once their inventory runs out, there’s no resupplying. Our service, called We Have, We Need, allows these teams to post and share their inventories, giving these groups the chance to find much-needed supplies in their area of operations instead of having to requisition them from their home countries. For organizations with excess perishable supplies, it gives them a chance to make sure that nothing goes to waste. Our goal is to help create an environment where humanitarians have to worry less about their supplies and can focus more on the people they are trying to help.

Now this may seem like a daunting task, and it is. Internet access is never a guarantee in Haiti, and even less so in a disaster zone. Even if they did have access to the internet, medical personnel have too much to do to spend their time sitting in front of a website. That's why we chose to approach the problem in a communication-agnostic manner: mobile and ubiquitous forms of communication like SMS and e-mail have the same capabilities as the website, albeit without as intuitive of an interface. Since SMS is usually the most prevalent access point in disaster zones, this makes sure that everyone can remain connected to our service, and we don't have to depend on the internet to get information out to our users.

As we began to run through some initial tasks and laid out the foundation for our service in September of last year, we started to realize just how far the scope of our project really reached. We needed to ensure the security of our users, otherwise they would not be comfortable posting certain high-profile items like drugs and medicines. At the same time we wanted to ensure that we could provide the best matching system possible to get our users the closest supplies. We decided that in order for our service to be secure and to provide as much functionality as we could, we would have to enforce security through anonymity, meaning that our users were in charge of how much information they shared with other users. So we built a communication router that allows users to communicate to each other without needing to know their e-mail or their phone number. Using simple four digit IDs, we can efficiently route messages from one user to another, to whichever platform (SMS or e-mail) they prefer. Of course users will also be able to view their entire message history via the website, regardless of how they sent their messages.

We started with just 4 team members back in September of 2011, with just an inkling of an idea. Now it’s spring and we have 14 team members, a ton of support from the school and the community, and we have begun to see the true potential of our service. We are shooting to launch in the summer, and we're looking forward to the future.

Jon (@jnwng)

we're building a service that connects NGOs and humanitarians in disaster zones via SMS, email, and the web. have some ideas or feedback? send us an email at [email protected]