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U.N. bureaucrat: RFID can help us do our jobs

The organization sees potential value in the track-and-trace chips as a way of keeping track of relief supplies--and personnel--in disaster-plagued zones.

WASHINGTON--Embedding electronic tags in containers of food and supplies--and even in workers' identification documents--will "revolutionize" the way the United Nations doles out relief in the aftermath of the next tsunami, civil war or disease outbreak, a senior organization official said Wednesday.

David Nabarro, U.N.'s bird flu coordinator United Nations

When U.N. workers descend on distressed locales, they often encounter logjams at airport tarmacs and confusion over what exactly is in this or that box, said David Nabarro, who's chiefly in charge of coordinating responses to bird and human influenza for the U.N. Development Group.

Nabarro said he envisions his organization one day going the way of the military and companies like Wal-Mart, using radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips to track and trace those critical goods.

And ideally, even smarter chips could be used to send out signals that indicate what's happening inside a container--for instance, whether a box has been tampered with, knocked around in transit or subjected to high temperatures that could make food go sour.

"Effective RFI tracking and good inventory management software would make a huge difference in our ability to deal with relief (operations)," Nabarro told a group of U.S. bureaucrats and company representatives at an RFID event hosted here by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. (A number of companies, including SAP America, that sell RFID-related products, sponsored the event, so not surprisingly, it emitted a decidedly pro-RFID aura.)

The advent of RFID-laced passports and other travel documents could also provide U.N. managers with a way to track staffers and other key non-U.N. personnel helping out on the scene, "particularly if they are sick and incapacitated," Nabarro added. (It wasn't exactly clear how this would work in practice, however, since RFID chips tend to have a finite zone in which they can be read remotely.)

Still, there are a number of obstacles to carrying out such a plan, Nabarro said. Because relief operations often occur in "worse than unspeakable" conditions (read: poor communications networks, nowhere to sleep or get food and nowhere to keep items cold or dry), it's risky to rely on anything that requires electricity, computers, dry conditions or clean air, he said. And in the case of a flu outbreak or other incident that puts lots of personnel out of commission, the systems must not be burdensome to use.

That means whatever RFID chips and readers are selected must be "incredibly robust" and simply designed. Oh, and inexpensive, of course.

"What I'm looking for," Nabarro told the audience, perhaps only half-joking, "is someone who can come and offer to us at exceedingly low cost...10,000 RFID tags and 100 scanners."