High-Tech Help for the Hungry

People go hungry and cold not because there isn’t enough bread
and aren’t enough sweaters in the world, but because supplies
aren’t evenly distributed to meet demand. While many blame that
basic injustice on corruption and greed, some tech-savvy
philanthropists have begun to wonder if part of the problem is just
bad communication. Yes, they say, the need for food and disaster
relief continues to grow, but businesses, charities, and
individuals who want to offer assistance would do so more freely
and more often if they could be sure that their gifts were going
where they were most needed, as swiftly and efficiently as
possible.

A Dallas-based nonprofit called Aidmatrix thinks it has a way to
get all parties on the same page — or, rather, the same Web site.
They’ve developed an online system that works as a kind a digital
clearinghouse, a place where both donors and distributors can log
on and engage in a Web-assisted trade, matching need with
supply.

In the age of televised suffering and the NGO, the world is full
of relief agencies, many of which desperately need a reliable
stream of aid. On the other side of the equation are countless
donors, whose contributions often flow out into this network with
very little data on the impact finding its way back.

Launched in 2000, Aidmatrix draws on the experience of its
for-profit parent, i2 Technology, Inc., which markets digital
demand-and-supply networks to telecommunications and defense firms,
among others. The crossover applications were clear. If providing
instant knowledge can work wonders in the private sector, think
what it could do in the equally complex, just-in-time economy of
giving.

For instance, consider the food distribution network that orbits
around America’s Second Harvest, the country’s largest
hunger-relief organization. Some 215 food banks rely on Second
Harvest for 1.8 billion pounds of grocery items per year.
Meanwhile, 50,000 food shelves and other local agencies are
supplied by the food banks. Before Aidmatrix, in the era of fax
machines and phones, the food banks were stuck in a costly
hit-and-miss ordering process, repeatedly adjusting their massive
grocery orders to what the Second Harvest clearinghouse had on hand
in the ever-shifting stock. Back at Second Harvest, the
organization and its donors were stuck in a murky, time-consuming
paper chase, funneling food offerings and tracking orders.
Completing the aid transaction, from offer to transport to the last
bit of paperwork confirming the donation,took an average of two
weeks.

Looking to new approaches used in for-profit distribution,
Aidmatrix created a similar solution for Second Harvest and its
far-flung associates. Both donors and agencies now have the ability
to go online and see real-time inventory, place orders, make
offerings, post needs, and track their efforts. If a food shelf
gets a truckload of frozen chicken parts, it can put out a call for
a truckload of rice to go with them. If a corporation has a
shipment of canned milk that’s two weeks from expiring, it can find
out which agencies might want the goods.

Aidmatrix also offers online services for individuals, and
smaller organizations step into the distribution chain too. On its
site (www.aidmatrix.org),
shelters and soup kitchens can set up their own donation pages,
listing the goods they need — and the dollars they could use from
potential donors. In certain cases, these virtual charity drives
can be designed to show donors just how much food or other forms of
goodwill their contributions are generating out in the world, as
measured in meals or blankets.

Ideally, the system helps agencies fill their pantries with what
they really need. Meanwhile, donors get a targeted, no-hassle,
results-oriented approach to giving — complete with the immediate
gratification that may lead them to give some more. According to
Lekha Singh, founder and CEO of Aidmatrix, the tool can be used by
any type of donor, for any purpose, from supporting local zoos to
purchasing items for war victims in other countries. It’s like
tracking a package: Donors can see exactly what their money is
buying at every step along the way.

Having taken root in the United States, Aidmatrix now hopes to
lend its systems to various relief efforts around the world, with a
goal of touching 50 million lives by 2005.

UTNE
UTNE
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