ERDC collaboration will assist humanitarian assistance planners

Published Dec. 4, 2014


VICKSBURG, Miss. - Deciding the best use of available funds for humanitarian assistance (HA) following disasters proved to be fertile ground for a U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) research collaboration, resulting in a tool now being adapted for Department of Defense (DOD) use.

USACE and the Pacific Disaster Center (PDC) are partnered in a project funded by ERDC and Office of Naval Research (ONR) called Spatial Analysis for Humanitarian Assistance Resource Allocation (SAHARA).

Geographer Richard Curran of GRL led the project, along with Research Environmental Engineer Matthew Bates and Research Psychologist Matt Wood, members of EL’s Risk and Decision Science Team (RaDS). They were very aware that evaluations, placement and prioritization of HA projects are complex decision processes with numerous options and constraints to consider.

“This project was the brain child of a now former ERDC and AGC employee who had worked supporting the DOD humanitarian assistance/disaster relief program called “Overseas Humanitarian, Disaster And Civic Aid,” (OHDACA) said Curran.

“It was believed that the OHDACA HA project nomination process could be improved by adding a data analytic capability to support evidence-based decision making and justify why projects should or should not be approved. The idea was proposed to contacts at OHDACA who liked it, so we approached ONR, which gave us the seed funding to begin the project,” Curran said.  

“Decision makers of HA resource allocation must assess a variety of tradeoffs regarding investment suitability to fit a combination of needs, such as agency mission, local community hazard exposure, local community resilience, and investment sustainability. The decision is further complicated by funding limitations for investment across broad regions of varying need,” Bates said.

“The basic idea is developing technologies to help DOD humanitarian assistance planners identify and evaluate proposed projects.  This is used (?) in a more systematic and data-driven manner by aggregating diverse spatial and census-type data relevant for different project needs,” Bates said.

In September, the ERDC team demonstrated this capability to PDC colleagues in Hawaii, who support DOD with data for these efforts. They also discussed integrating the Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis (MCDA)-based site suitability tool developed by SAHARA as a module into PDC’s DisasterAWARE.                                      

“Within DisasterAWARE, the new site suitability module will be used to support the current DoD humanitarian assistance resource allocation process. It will provide project nominators and validators with a systematic, repeatable and transparent process for matching proposed projects with locations where characteristics are favorable for success. 

“We are moving forward with the formal technology transfer to them this year to operationalize it. We also have an official letter of support from SOUTHCOM and some interest from PACOM endorsing the usefulness of this approach,” Curran said.

These multi-day demonstrations highlighted an ERDC-developed web-based tool called GeoFramework/GEAR, which shows what GIS-MCDA site suitability capability can look like in practice.                                                      

“The briefing and demo were well received, with audience members commenting on the power a geospatial decision tool can provide in humanitarian assistance and disaster response  situations,” Curran said, adding that “DisasterAWARE has proven its worth in support of operational decision making by organizing and displaying data and information from PDC data stores and outside data sources in easily interpretable formats.”

Among the decision-ranking benefits:

  • Defines transparent, scalable, repeatable and data-driven results to a planning process that can benefit from these types of tools.
  • Provides justifiable support to request resources for geographic locations that meet multiple, sometimes conflicting, expectations.
  • Integrates decision maker and stakeholder preferences and priorities.
  • Provides quantitative and data-driven decision support tools to the HA community.
  • Allows the user to define relationships, objectives and constraints related to key variables that drive the decision process.
  • Reduces operational risk and increases project effectiveness through an improved and more justifiable evaluation and selection process.
  • Compares preferences in frameworks tailored across a wide range of project types, such as health infrastructure, education and natural disasters.
  • Permits a rapid re-assessment and “what-if” scenario evaluation with new criteria weights based on changing stakeholder inputs, requirements or expectations.
  • Maintains mission consistency across multiple unique regions

“Leveraging ERDC’s capabilities to add an evaluative site suitability module will introduce technology capable of performing analytics on DisasterAWARE’s rich datasets, which will further enable robust evidence-based decision making in DOD and civilian HADR operational environments, “ Curran said.