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KM's role in the aftermath of disaster

Many technologies that fall under the purview of knowledge management have proved useful after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Portals, electronic medical records and supply chain solutions all can serve valuable roles in the recovery process.

 One of the most pressing concerns of Katrina victims was to locate family and friends who had been separated during emergency evacuations. A number of organizations created links to missing person listings on their Web sites, but FirstGov (www.firstgov.gov) brought many of them into one portal. FirstGov is the U.S. government's official Web portal, and provides citizens with access to a full range of government organizations and resources.

 In order to help reunite families after Hurricane Katrina, FirstGov identified and posted links to numerous organizations that were keeping track of missing persons. For example, on the KatrinaSafe (www.katrinasafe.com) site, sponsored by the American Red Cross (redcross.org), evacuees can register their location and family members can search for missing people. FirstGov also provided a link to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (missingkids.com), where information about children seeking parents as well as missing adults was posted.

 In addition, FirstGov also included links to organizations dedicated to reuniting New Orleans employers and employees, as well as to organizations with databases of patients evacuated from hospitals and nursing homes. Links to lists of individuals in selected shelters were added, and a procedure for registering evacuees was explained for private individuals who were hosting displaced people.

 Behind the scenes, what made the hurricane-related content for this portal come together so efficiently was an ongoing community of practice that included Web content managers from agencies throughout the government.

 "The trust factor was already present," says Bev Godwin, director of FirstGov. "We were able to assign a lead agency quickly to each of five major topics ranging from health to volunteer coordination."

 Every morning, a representative from the 1-800-FED-INFO call center (which was handling 6,000 to 14,000 calls per day) spoke with the key Web managers during a virtual meeting to indicate what questions callers were asking, so that new information could be incorporated into the government sites as needed. Yahoo added a search feature that operated across the missing persons lists, many of which were unstructured rather than being in database format. Through a combination of established personal relationships and technological expertise, FirstGov was able to alleviate at least some of the problems experienced by victims of the hurricanes.

Online Medical Records

 Residents who fled areas threatened by Katrina and Rita left behind not only their homes and possessions, but also their medical records. Those who stayed fared no better, since medical facilities were largely unavailable. Within a short time, the lack of available medical records became a major problem. From elderly patients on regular medication to children being treated for cancer, the absence of medical information was a barrier to maintaining health.

 Several efforts were launched to put together medical records for evacuees. One was a Web site (katrinahealth.org) that provided a central location through which healthcare providers could access prescription data. A large coalition of medical organizations cooperated to launch the site, which delivers data from both commercial and government sources and in some cases aggregates the data.

 In addition, Medem (www.medem.com) has made its personal health record software, iHealthRecord, available to relief agencies so that evacuees can create online medical records.

 "The data collected is similar to the form that a patient typically fills in during an initial visit to a physician," says Jason Best, VP of marketing at Medem. The software has pull-down menus for frequently used terms so that the patient can fill in the data easily. At the patient's discretion, the iHealthRecord can be shared with healthcare providers. Several thousand evacuees now have online records, Best estimates.

 Allscripts (www.allscripts.com), which makes clinical software, has given its e-prescription software to doctors in Louisiana, Texas, Alabama and Tennessee for the coming year to assist in getting prescriptions filled rapidly.

Supply chain adaptability for rebuilding

 Supply chain technology is another natural fit for post-disaster scenarios.

 "Companies such as Wal-Mart (www.walmart.com) and Target (www.target.com) got their supply chains up and running very quickly after Katrina," says Col. Randall Larsen (ret.), founding director of the Institute for Homeland Security (tihls.org). "They could also apply this expertise to distributing emergency supplies. In terms of supply chain management, no one can compete with the likes of Wal-Mart and Target, not even the military."

 Larsen suggests that companies such as FedEx (www.fedex.com) and UPS (www.ups.com) could be tapped to respond in situations where supplies such as vaccines had to be distributed quickly. Many private organizations have in place the technology for obtaining, tracking and delivering supplies, which are much-needed competencies in disaster situations.

 Supply chains will also serve the region as the rebuilding begins. For example, the construction industry will need to manage a large influx of materials resulting from the spike in demand. Companies that served the area using local supply sources will have to recast their strategies and find alternatives.

 "Those organizations that had set up multiple suppliers will be in a much better position to adapt to new circumstances," says Mickey North Rizza, research director at AMR Research (www.amrresearch.com). Supply chain software that coordinates suppliers, inventory and transportation can expedite the process.

 Shortages that result from increased demand may also be better dealt with through the use of supply chain solutions. "In the event of supply shortages," Rizza adds, "we do expect some price increases on construction supplies and equipment. But at the same time, resourceful companies will seek alternative materials, such as composites, as a substitute for plywood in cases where those substitutions can be made." That type of flexibility, along with contingency planning, will allow suppliers to operate more smoothly and serve their customers better, even in times of disruption.

Judith Lamont is a research analyst with Zentek Corp., e-mail jlamont@sprintmail.com.

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