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UI Researcher Looks for Better Routes for Relief Supplies to Disaster Sites

Halfway through another hurricane season and so far, the United States has avoided a direct hit from a major storm. But emergency planners are always thinking about the best ways to get relief to areas hit by hurricanes and other natural disasters.

How do you build a supply chain overnight to move food, water and medical supplies to helpless people in areas that may no longer have functioning roads, airports or port facilities? Ann Campbell, a professor of management sciences in the University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business, thinks a lot about that question.

An expert on transportation logistics, one of Campbell's research focuses is finding more efficient methods for governments, agencies and businesses to transport relief supplies to disaster areas.

Campbell is using the tools of her trade to find a better idea. Her specialty—vehicle routing —uses mathematical modeling and high-powered computing to develop quicker, more efficient ways to move something from one place to another.

Most of her research is aimed at helping businesses build supply chains that reduce transportation costs and increase profits.

"Companies want to save money on shipping because it's a big expense with a lot going on in the background, so they're always looking for ways to deliver products more efficiently," she said.

Researchers in the field study problems as simple as scheduling an itinerary for a traveling salesman who needs to visit several clients in one day and as complex as moving a package across the country overnight.

As a result of advances in the field, whole new business innovations have been developed. Campbell points to time-definite delivery services, where products move from manufacturers and suppliers to customers within tight delivery windows. These time-definite delivery services allow customers to operate "just-in-time" and save on warehouse and inventory storage costs.

None of that would be possible, she said, without researchers working on the mathematical formulas and developing the software that builds the most efficient supply chain.

And overnight delivery is also an invention partly of transportation logistics.

"UPS and FedEx started overnight delivery without really knowing how to do it well, but they've been using research to tweak their routing systems and make it more efficient," said Campbell, who was recently named an associate editor of Transportation Science, the leading scholarly journal in the field.

But few transportation logistics problems are as challenging as disaster logistics, which deals in many more unknown factors and turns the objective of supply chain management-maximizing profit-on its head.

"Commercial supply chains are focused on quality and profitability," she said. "Humanitarian supply chains are focused on minimizing loss of life and suffering, and distribution is focused on equity and fairness much more than in commercial applications."

Campbell started studying disaster logistics after the Indonesian earthquake and tsunami in 2004 wiped out a portion of Aceh Island and killed hundreds of thousands of people. For weeks, governments and international agencies struggled to bring relief supplies to a remote corner of a remote island where the disaster had taken out most transportation infrastructure.

The question took on added urgency when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005.

"The software used to route deliveries is focused on maximizing profits and minimizing costs, but that didn't seem the most appropriate software to use when it came to getting people food and water," she said.

One element of disaster logistics that Campbell and others are studying is where to locate pre-positioned supply depots in advance of a storm.

"If you put them too close to the Gulf they might be destroyed by the storm, so you have to put them someplace that's far enough away to be safe but no so far that it takes too long to get the supplies to the people who need them," she said.

Campbell and her UI colleague Phil Jones, professor of management sciences in the Tippie College, are both working to identify optimal locations for emergency supply depots based on pre-planning done by the American Red Cross.

This scholarly attention to disaster logistics has already paid dividends in evacuation routes. One of the most enduring images of Hurricane Katrina is long freeway bottlenecks caused by tens of thousands of New Orleans residents trying to flee but getting stuck because of ineffective evacuation procedures.

After that, Campbell said transportation logistics scholars turned their research to the question of evacuating huge numbers of people in a small amount of time, leading to the development of new, more effective evacuation plans in many places along the Gulf Coast. Among the solutions, she said, is developing a plan where areas are evacuated neighborhood-by-neighborhood, and by turning two-way roads into one-way roads to increase the volume of traffic using that road.

Campbell is a professor of management sciences with research focuses on vehicle routing and scheduling, distribution and pricing, and hub location. She earned her bachelor's degree and master's degree from Rice University and her doctorate from the Georgia Institute of Technology. She is an associate editor of INFOR, a leading Canadian-based transportation logistics journal, and serves on the editorial board of Transportation Research-Part C.


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