Hungry for change

10 Jul 2012

Author: Nicole Richards



Three software engineering undergraduates, whose natural curiosity led them to develop a new logistics interface for aid agencies, have the potential to revolutionise the distribution of humanitarian aid and save thousands of lives across the globe.
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Brad Lorge and Aimee Lowth are second and third year software engineering students who are poised to launch an innovative, low-cost interface with the potential to save or enrich thousands, if not millions, of lives across the world.

Together with fellow student Ben Wright, the pair were contemplating the state of the world while watching TED videos at a uni bar when they stumbled upon an arresting fact they couldn’t turn their back on.

“We learnt that world hunger doesn’t exist simply because of a lack of food,” Lorge says. “As software engineers we’re always interested in analysing problems and this seemed like a pretty significant one.”

“So we started looking at the problem, and it turns out the real issue is logistics and distribution. Huge stockpiles of food are going to waste in warehouses, medical supplies aren’t reaching the people who need them , and building equipment that would help people re-build their homes after a disaster isn’t getting through.”

“It seems ridiculous but distribution is uniformly the most expensive line item for aid agencies, and when we started to speak with these agencies we learned that in terms of logistics it comes down to papers, phone calls and the occasional spreadsheet. We figured there had to be a better way.” 

The trio consulted with a wide range of charities and Non- Government Organisations, including Foodbank Australia and various United Nations agencies to glean insight into the complex world of humanitarian aid. Armed with this knowledge, and encouraged by the UNSW School of Computer Science and Engineering, the Confufish ‘Enough’ project was born.

“For users, the technology is actually really simple,” says Lowth. “We’ve established a platform and set of tools that form a core distribution system that’s accessible with a mobile phone. Basically it enables charities to come together in a single interface to register what they need, and where and when it needs to be picked up. With one glance drivers can see an itinerary of what they’re picking up, where it needs to be delivered and any special requirements.”

The implications of the technology are far-reaching. Not only will it enable greater efficiency of transport and coordination, but it will also enable long-term planning.

“In the developing world, or in areas where crops are only available at certain times of the year, agencies will be able to plan ahead in areas that don’t have the luxury of having a truck on hand,” Lorge explains. “The interface will tell users when something’s not possible, or when it needs more resources, and that’s something agencies have historically struggled to do.”

With the potential to revolutionise the distribution of aid not only in long-term development projects but also in emergency response situations, Lorge is confident the interface will facilitate an efficient, demand-based distribution system. “The interface can be used for anything – food, medical equipment, anything at all that needs to go from somewhere to somewhere else,” he says.

Sarah Pennell, Business and Communications Manager at Foodbank, the largest hunger relief organisation in Australia, believes the interface shows huge promise.

“We think this technology has enormous potential,” Pennell says. “Transportation is our single biggest challenge and is incredibly costly.”

Connecting the food industry with welfare agencies, Foodbank captures 24 million kilograms of food every year that would otherwise go to waste, supplying it to more than 2,500 charities across the country who transform that food into 88,000 meals a day.

“We’re looking to increase our food distribution to 50 million kilograms each year and include more fresh food for our charities,” Pennell says. “That means we have to get closer to the farm gate and become smarter and more efficient with distribution.”

With a potential pilot project earmarked to begin in late 2012, Pennell says interest within the industry is strong. “As we begin to scope the pilot and look to seek funding we’ve been really pleased with the response, and already we’ve had companies come to us who are keen to collaborate.”

“We’re thrilled that these young people are bringing their technological expertise and a fresh set of eyes to this problem – they don’t see any limits and they’re showing how technology can help not-for-profits.”

It’s not just observers within aid circles who’ve applauded the enterprise. Confufish made it to the Australian final of the Microsoft Imagine Cup and was awarded a NASSCOM Innovation Award at the 2012 CeBIT gala dinner.

“This has been a huge learning opportunity for us,” Lowth says. “Every week we’ve met a new group of people and their response has been really encouraging. The charities have been hugely enthusiastic – not a week has gone by that we haven’t had another one signing up to work with us.”

“This project has taught us so much,” echoes Lorge.  “It’s amazing to know that there’s a community of people who are willing to get behind an idea and give their time and experience to help build it. Our faculty has been beyond supportive, and it’s helped us realise that uni isn’t just about learning and sitting exams, it’s about exploring ideas.”

With the future brimming with opportunity, Lorge and Lowth remain magnanimous. “We don’t see this as a way to make money – this is about helping people, and I think we can really make a difference.”