Sunday, January 17, 2010

68> Haiti and Thinking Small

This is off-topic. The regularly scheduled post will be along in a day or two.

Having a bit of a soapbox to stand on, I realize, has some advantages. I want use mine now to share an idea that’s been in the back of my mind for a couple of years now. The situation in Haiti illustrates a problem that occurs again and again the world over. It is the problem of distributing aid. Specifically it is the dependence of aid agencies on having a top-down system, where airports must be secured, warehouses must be secured, roads must be secured etc, all before food can get to people in need.

The traditional wisdom is that the aid packages cannot be parachuted in, for fear of crushing people and/or causing riots. As a guy who loves to design, giving up the whole idea drives me crazy.

The problem is distributing the aid fairly and evenly. In many cases gangs steal the aid by hijacking the trucks or taking over the warehouses. Often conflict prevents aid workers from getting to affected areas.  In Haiti, there are villages that will be cut off (by road) for some time. Surely there must be some way to get food and water to the people directly.

I submit that the distribution problem is actually a packaging problem. If individual portions of food and water could be dumped from a plane in a form that would not clobber the people below, they would self-distribute on the way down. Long brightly colored ribbons would make them easy to find. When a maple tree drops its seeds, they disperse by means of papery little wings that make them gently spin to earth. Can’t we do the same for a food bar and a half a cup of water? Think about it. You can’t hoard what you have to search out to collect, and small amounts aren't worth stealing. In many cases the children in these disasters watch helplessly as their parents struggle to get the family through. This would give them a chance to go on an Easter egg hunt and be heroes. There would be no favorites, at least in terms of social position or gender.

People could also be encouraged to migrate away from unsanitary conditions. If the drops occur north of town, people will pick up and go to where the food shows up.

I guess in one way this IS related to PRT. The key is to think small. The problem of making something safe to drop from a few thousand feet becomes exponentially harder as the weight increases. This strikes me as similar to the nasty tendency to think big with transportation, or at least not take small vehicle mass transit PRT seriously. It just seems that if you mention moving ten people instead of one or two, suddenly you are taken much more seriously. Small is counter-intuitive.

Similarly the idea of moving tons of food aid with thousands of little parachutes or whirly-gigs sounds ridiculous, until you consider that, as a society, we are already the kings of over packaging. We mass-produce and (over) package little items by the millions every day. These aid items just need to be highly compactable for transit, but, when falling, have enough drag to fall at speeds too slow to be dangerous. Is that really so hard? Not if you think small. Heck, I’m pretty sure my kid’s packaged lunches are almost ready to go as is! Think origami, and plastic that you can fold and will spring back. Think tails with multiple wind catching discs that stack tight for shipping. Let’s solve this problem before the next big disaster, shall we?


afransen said...

You could also use biodegradable plastic, so any food that goes unfound won't be litter that lasts for ages.

I think this is a decent idea, but likely only part of the solution in such a situation, as you say. The first wave of aid.

This reminds me of the appropriate technology movement, like the elephant toilet from pumpaid. Sanitation is a big problem for many poor areas, and most Wwest-imposed solutions are totally inappropriate for communities that cannot afford to maintain sophisticated, expensive pieces of equipment.

akauppi said...

That's a great idea! And it would work, too.

Now your dilemma is Light Aid or PRT...? Which way to go and push? (I bet first would be easier to make a working prototype)

For blankets, one could think of smaller pieces (the size one can sit on) that would tie together to form any size.

akauppi said...

The book "Tipping point" by Malcolm Gladwell describes a case where clean drug needles were distributed in a city, exchanging used ones for clean ones.

Instead of the drug addicts queueing for the exchange themselves, there emerged a group of mediators, who collected the used pins during the week and then exchanged hundreds at once. They made some money on this, selling clean syringes further.

The point of this is - it was not planned this way. But once the project realized the benefits (wide distribution, essentially 24/7 coverage) they decided to be only glad with it.

Tying this to the aid issue, even trading the aid goods on ground is not all bad. It just needs to be kept away from the greedy big hands, which dropping lots of small packages should prevent.

I love your idea and mentioned it to the ADRA agency ( Hope they come here to read this. :)

cmfseattle said...

i like your idea. have you seen this? National Geographic Feature on PlayPump Water Systems

Dan said...

Thanks for the input, guys.

Afransen, cheap and functional is most important, IMHO, but you got me thinking. Perhaps the wrappers could be redeemable for cash… with a start date a week or so after the drop, so they don’t unwrap everything right away … They could use the money…

Akauppi, the same could be said of tents. It occurred to me that tent components and hang gliders have a lot in common, and should be able to be dropped safely as well. Thanks for passing on the link. If every reader did that a few times we could get this done.

Cmfseattle, that is a very cool little story there. I love it. I guess I’m not the only one so see the potential in “kid power”.

A couple of additional thoughts. First, on the distribution of liquids. I think the “pouch” packaging currently used for sauce packages in some frozen dinners is a decent way to go. It is essentially liquid sandwiched between sheets of flexible plastic, one flat and the other dished out. Very cheap and the machinery is already out there, ready to roll. There are juice boxes and pouches out there, but things that are shelved vertically are pretty aerodynamic.

As for solid food, I think one key is to form the food in the right shape in the first place. My current favorite shape is a thin square, but significantly cupped in the middle so that it won’t slice through the air sideways. Imagine nutritive wafers pressed into thin, edible, stacked, square bowl shapes that become un-nested as they fall. (Individually wrapped for freshness!)

This is a food company’s dream. Can you imagine how good the publicity would as they announce how many metric tons of food aid they had donated, while the camera switches from scenes of wreckage and despair to the eyes of excited hopeful children pointing skyward at the colorful gifts raining down like confetti at a parade? As they excitedly run through the meadows, or present their prizes to their kind-faced (but skinny) grandmother? If I can be even more cynical for a moment, there probably is even a good commercial market for such relief packages to aid agencies or governments. They don’t need to do this strictly pro bono. And they can put their name on each package.

Will somebody get the president of Kraft on the line? Oh, yeah. Get the CEO of Archer Daniels Midland on the horn too…

Ryan Baker said...

I like the first idea, parachutes, but don't make the wrappers redeemable for money. Would make more sense to drop money, thought that also doesn't make sense. No, stick to dropping things they need, no one needs money, they only need the things it buys, if you have a way to give that to them directly, then stick to that.