Information Visibility in Humanitarian Operations: Current State-of-the-Art

Privett, N.
In N. Atlay, M. Haselkorn, and C. Zobel (Eds.), Advances in Managing Humanitarian Operations. New York: Springer.

Purpose – Humanitarian operations can be greatly improved through increased supply chain visibility, that is, availability of information throughout the supply chain. This is broadly true for all types of humanitarian operations, whether disaster relief, global health efforts, or capacity building, or community development., and it is especially true for operations in developing or compromised country contexts.  This chapter establishes basic supply chain visibility needs in humanitarian contexts and explores current state-of-the-art technologies and applications employed to gain and improve visibility in humanitarian operations.  Conclusions are drawn regarding gaps in current visibility mechanisms as well as promising areas for further research and development.


Approach – Information regarding visibility needs, technologies, and projects was collected through 22 semi-structured interviews and a review of current literature from a variety of sources.  The state-of-the-art of visibility technology and applications are described by reviewing technologies, applications, and pilot projects in the humanitarian sector.  Conclusions are drawn comparing these technologies and addressing their weaknesses as well as remaining gaps in currently available solutions.


Findings – There is consensus among humanitarian researchers and practitioners that increased visibility has the potential to greatly improve humanitarian operations.  Firstly, though, any visibility mechanism must first be robust to potential humanitarian contextual challenges, including weak infrastructure (e.g., roads, electricity, internet and mobile networks), remoteness of operations, lack of human resources, and environmental conditions.  Identified visibility needs for humanitarian operations include tracking of location, tracking of inventory levels, temperature monitoring, tracing product information, information sharing, and decision making support.

This chapter demonstrates that current state-of-the-art technologies and applications aimed at increasing visibility in humanitarian operations are varied in approach and complexity; while  each tackle different needs, no one solution satisfies all. Reviewed technologies and applications are organized into the following categories: nontechnology-based applications, mature technologies, mobile phone applications and technologies, satellite-based technologies, temperature sensor and monitor technologies, and software technologies.  Indeed, each mechanism investigated (state-of-the-art technologies and applications) does improve visibility to some degree, but more complete visibility must be achieved through disconnected, patchwork solutions.  Thus, multifaceted and disjoined efforts must be employed to achieve even low levels of visibility today.

Over all of these technologies and applications, a set of key weaknesses has been identified.  While great advances and success has been achieved, unfeasible infrastructure dependency continues to be a weakness of existing technologies and applications. Such dependency includes reliance on electricity, computers, internet connectivity, cellular networks, and existing systems (e.g., RFID reader network). It is observed in this research, that as a solution moves away from being infrastructure dependent, it becomes more dependent on human resources.  As such, many of these solutions are labor intensive, dependent on reporting, and require extensive training.  However, human resources constraints and dependency themselves are serious issues facing humanitarian operations.  Furthermore, data collection is clearly limited and existing methods continue to be plagued by inaccuracy, deficient error checking provisions, and lack of back-up. Some data is still not real-time and delayed notification does not enable prevention. Affordability is another key weakness in the form of the devices, systems, and/or usage. 

Most importantly, for information visibility to be beneficial, (1) the information must be actionable and (2) the gained information and operational reaction systems must be synchronized for action, i.e., operations must be prepared and capable to respond to the information.  Thus, the greatest limitations are the lack of systems, procedures, and training that enable meaningful and appropriate reaction to the information provided. 

Contribution – This research assembles and evaluates current needs and efforts in humanitarian operations and supply chain visibility. Overall, this chapter informs current research and practice of ideal, necessary and realistically obtainable information in today’s humanitarian operations.  The benefits of this work extend broadly to operations and supply chain researchers and practitioners, including those engaged in humanitarian relief, global health supply chains, capacity building, and ongoing development campaigns.  Furthermore, the identification of gaps in current state-of-the-art technologies and applications directs future efforts of developers and users.