Direct Relief Enlists Esri, Google, SAP to Create Online Medical Aid Map

Nonprofit organization Direct Relief has unveiled its Online Medical Aid Distribution Map with help from Esri's ArcGIS, Google Earth and SAP applications to keep the flow of aid transparent.

Humanitarian organization Direct Relief International has launched an online aid-tracking portal called the Online Medical Aid Distribution Map. Announced on Dec. 16, the Web tool provides pharmaceutical and medical manufacturers with precise data on where their aid packages have been shipped to.

Founded in 1948, Direct Relief is a nonprofit organization that provides aid such as asthma inhalers, syringes, IV bags and other medical supplies to community health clinics for 18 million low-income and uninsured people.

Direct Relief's aid-tracking map runs SAP BW (Business Warehouse), which provides medical supply inventories and provides resource planning for the health care firms using the tool.

One set of data comes from the HRSA (Health Resources and Services Administration), a government agency that provides health care to people in need. However, due to federal regulations, Direct Relief must file a Freedom of Information Act request to acquire this info, Ross Comstock, Direct Relief International's IT director, told eWEEK.

Direct Relief submits this request because medical files are listed as one of the nine exceptions, or types of info the government may decide not to release, according to Damon Taugher, director of Direct Relief U.S.A.

"The HRSA makes a great deal of the data publicly available in summary and by searches, filters and demographic reports at their website," Taugher told eWEEK. "Basically, by filing a Freedom of Information Act request each year, Direct Relief is able to access the largest amount of data provided by the clinics in the most flexible format."

From the SAP database, the data then gets transported into Simpler Systems' data search engine, which stores 50,000 records of Direct Relief shipments and allows for health care companies to search the visual map by state, clinic or topic such as HIV cases. Companies can also create their own reports from the data.

"[Simpler is] a nice tool that takes what's otherwise kind of complex data and makes it searchable and more intuitive," Taugher said.

"Rather than the typical weighted results of a traditional search engine, the system allows use of an extensive, intuitive and particularly relevant range of search operators such as filter, sort, aggregate, list and various 'between' operators for producing search results in specific ranges," he explained. "There is a unique drill-down feature which allows for instant filtering of results based on a search result, or drilling down to that point's underlying data."

Meanwhile, Direct Relief incorporated the visualization functionality of Esri's ArcGIS application into Google Earth maps to display where the medicine is going, Taugher said. At this stage, the map can overlay shipping locations with data on shipment routes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on hurricane tracking and the Environmental Protection Agency on factors such as air quality.

"It's easy for us to take data from our systems and just overlay that against other third-party data," Comstock said. "It literally takes less than a few minutes to bring in another layer that may be relevant to the information we're looking at and help us with our decision making."

Transparency is key when donors want to know where their aid has gone, according to Comstock. ESRI's ArcGIS software provides this transparency.

"Historically that's kind of been an issue for nongovernmental organizations, this whole issue of transparency," he explained. It's essential to be able to report what Direct Relief does with a donation, he says.

Another focus for the Distribution Map is "precision and accuracy," Taugher said.

Online mapping tools could be beneficial to donors during a crisis, such as the Haiti earthquake. "The mapping allows companies to see a snapshot of the most urgent needs and that their donations are reaching their destinations," Taugher said.

Despite the advantages of using the online map during disasters, Taugher sees the mapping tool as valuable on a daily basis, and Direct Relief aims to provide the tracking tools before the next emergency, he said.

Still, Direct Relief's online map is ready for any occurrence. "When the next Hurricane Katrina happens, we feel like we're going to be really well positioned coordinating that network of resources," Comstock said.