Dozens of people were queuing patiently in neat rows, each clutching a small piece of paper the size of an ID card in their hands.
As their turn came, people stepped up and handed the paper to the aid worker with a World Vision t-shirt behind the desk, who whipped out a rugged-looking smartphone and scanned the barcode printed on it.
A form with names, addresses and other details appeared on the smartphone.
The aid worker asked some questions to ensure the person carrying the paper was the one whose details were on the form, then sent them to another queue, where staff and volunteers were doling out bags of rice.
The whole process lasted less than 15 seconds.
“This is what we call our Last Mile Mobile Solutions,” said a World Vision staff member overseeing the distribution of rice from the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) in this district in the central Philippines. The region was devastated by super-Typhoon Haiyan on Nov. 8, leaving 4 million people displaced and almost 6 million with no job or income.
Setting up the system involves a fairly heavy initial workload in terms of data collection and entry, but once an electronic list of all the beneficiaries – those entitled to aid, in aid-agency speak - is established, it’s a breeze and could be used in settings beyond the distribution of relief goods, according to staff I met that morning.
Proponents say it saves duplication, prevents people from sending proxies and is more efficient than the conventional paper system that relies on fingerprints and other details for identification.
NATURAL SETTING FOR INNOVATION
The Philippines, a disaster-prone country whose citizens have embraced mobile technology and social media with the intensity of a love affair, seems a natural setting for such innovations.
Not only World Vision but also WFP and other agencies are looking at how to take advantage of the existing infrastructure and the Filipinos’ familiarity with technology. According to one study, the Philippines’ mobile penetration in March 2013 was 112 percent.
The WFP is arming its monitoring and evaluation staff with 30 tablets, the first time the system is being tested at scale, according to Samir Wanmali, WFP’s emergency coordinator.
WFP staff interview people in the affected communities using pre-programmed forms, then generate their reports with a click or two, and send the results directly to the WFP mothership. Previously they would have to type the reports manually – and risk papers and data getting lost in transit.
Cashless transfer is another innovation now being used in the Philippines.
During the emergency relief phase after Haiyan, the WFP took advantage of an existing conditional cash transfer programme - the government-run Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), which supports nearly 4 million of the most vulnerable households with health, nutrition and education expenses - to give cash to 500,000 people affected by the disaster.
Families receive SMS messages with a code, take it to the bank and receive the money.
“We’re trying to reach half a million people in 2 months. To do that, at scale, we’re using all the technology that exists and that people use in this country,” Wanmali said.
The WFP is using a similar approach in the early recovery phase, although no longer through the 4Ps. The agency has signed agreements with telecoms operator SMART and the Land Bank to help a further 500,000 people rebuild their livelihoods and assets.
TECHNOLOGY TO THE RESCUE?
“In Asia, if we don’t take advantage of this type of technologies that exist and people are familiar with, I think responding to emergencies on this scale becomes much more complicated,” Wanmali said.
Using these systems also reduces the amount and risk of resource leakage and makes aid agencies more accountable, he said.
Andrej Verity, an information management officer at OCHA, the U.N. humanitarian agency, is another expert who has found the Philippines has “a perfect combination of traits” for an innovative humanitarian laboratory.
“The population has a humanitarian nature, accepts failure, is full of techies, is pushing forward on OpenData, and is truly appreciative of people even trying to help,” he wrote in his blog after nearly three months of work in the field.
Of course, not all disaster and conflict sites are going to be suitable for such experiments. “Hardware failure is going to be more possible in the Sahel than in the Philippines,” Verity told me in an e-mail interview.
He also said that while he firmly believes that cashless transfers can change humanitarian aid, monitoring them will be challenging for unconditional transfers.
“Donors are not going to be happy with agencies simply saying that they gave away $X and have no real clue to where it went (think of insecure or corrupt locations),” he said.
Even in the best-connected countries, there are times when it’s just not possible to fight the elements.
As we were interviewing people who had just received rice, a tropical downpour interrupted us. As we ran for shelter, the WFP monitors had to close their tablets. No more interviews till the sun came out again.