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Frontline Humanitarian Logistics: working together for a more efficient and effective response

Award Winning! This FHL initiative and Mike Smith have been recognized by the Start Network for their effort in grappling with the challenges of systemic change in the humanitarian sector, and for driving lasting change within the wider system.

October 6, 2020

Many of the world’s 71 million forcibly displaced people depend on humanitarian response for life-saving support. In post-disaster and conflict environments, getting the right aid to the right people is complex, because many of the more traditional systems and processes that work in other situations do not work in this ‘last mile’ at the frontline of aid delivery.

For this reason, much of the humanitarian sector is still dependent on spreadsheets to manage Frontline Humanitarian Logistics (FHL). But while spreadsheets semi-answer an immediate need they fall very short at a scalable, structured and secured system that can be deployed predictably across units, or across organizations. They are also hard (if not impossible) to interconnect to other data sources or systems at work in these complex environments.

With many nonprofit organizations moving to deploy or replace their core Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) capability in 2019/20, there was a systemic opportunity to deliver a sustainable technology capability for the humanitarian community. This would enable interoperability across the sector and provide a large efficiency gain to all. (Interoperability is defined as the ability of two or more systems to operate together in concert, literally to ‘inter operate’.)

To save time and costs and enable interoperability of information systems within and between organizations, NetHope and a group of its nonprofit membership organizations began the FHL Data Standard project. The project was joined by Proteus, a digital change consultancy, to help create the Data Standard that would help the whole sector – and ultimately to better help people in need of humanitarian support.

The fact that this collaboration includes the technology companies is powerful because it is these companies that provide the backbone systems that nonprofits, international agencies and governments use, including in the forefront of their aid delivery. If these systems are designed with sensitivity for frontline situations, by using common processes and data entities across frontline humanitarian logistics, then they can be a huge enabling and effort-multiplying factor for the sector. This would save significant time and cost for individual organizations that require a system, and enables interoperability and quick sharing of frontline humanitarian data which can be vital in a crisis. Conversely, if these systems continue to be unsuitable for frontline environments, they can quickly become a limiting factor in emergency response and recovery. In some cases, they may even require bespoke or inefficient ‘workarounds’ or ‘hacks’, adding further burden to the nonprofit’s vital resources.

This FHL Data Standard project brought together experience from nonprofits, some of the world’s biggest technology companies with expertise in supply chain management, technology consultants and academics with a focus on humanitarian logistics. Together they ensured the data standard would be rigorous, fit for purpose, and crucially could be dynamic and built upon. They knew their standard would increase in relevance and value as it was further tested in the fire of large-scale software development and real-life aid situations.

And today we are pleased to announce the FHL Project team has succeeded and has published THE INAUGURAL VERSION OF THE COMMON FRONTLINE HUMANITARIAN LOGISTICS DATA STANDARD!

The FHL Data Standard includes the common processes across frontline humanitarian logistics and the common data entities agreed against each process.

Some of the benefits of creating and embedding a common Data Standard that spans logistics in the nonprofit sector include:

  • It lowers the adoption threshold of IT for (humanitarian) organizations. The ability to use (commercial) product offerings that are pre-configured for the specific challenges and demands of humanitarian supply chain management allows nonprofits to save significant time and cost. They do not have to spend time configuring, or sometimes even coding/developing on top of products, to make them work for the situation where they are needed. They can also then use standard training materials from the vendors for their staff, instead of having such a highly customized product that requires the creation of bespoke additional training resources.
  • It supports optimization of aid flows by enabling interoperability of (information) systems between aid organizations. This means organizations can talk to each other in relief situations using standard protocols. This data-driven decision making allows for smoother partnering, greater transparency, increased efficiency and less wasted effort in a disaster or emergency setting where every moment counts.
  • It supports optimization of aid flows by enabling interoperability of (information) systems between other entities and aid organizations. Similarly, the boundary between the nonprofit and the other entities it interacts with will be more predictable when a standard protocol is applied. This is enables entities like governments or international freight and shipping companies, as well as other suppliers, to have standard interfaces with aid organizations – removing friction and speeding up aid delivery and transparency.
  • It forms the foundations to strengthen local control over, and better integration of, local resources in aid operations by enabling transparent, accountable, and consolidated management of information across (all) emergency response actors


Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the planned approach of a two-day face-to-face workshops to develop the Data Standard had to be revisited. The team moved to a webinar-based iterative approach, where each webinar was followed by questionnaires to collate more detailed responses from participants. This iterative approach proved very positive, with 24 organizations feeding into the process. (You can see the full list of NGOs, technology companies, academic institutions, and others below).

Covid-19 created the additional challenge of new ways of working and maintaining engagement online over a longer period, including across multiple time zones, but overall, the process has been more successful than we had even hoped for.


  • 60-80% of common data entities were agreed across FHL processes – far exceeding the target estimate of 40-60% coverage
  • 80% of FHL project participants said they saw value in the Data Standard and would be using it for future system implementations
  • Feedback from participants is that the project is a great example of collaboration across non-profit organizations and technology partners to solve a common problem
  • Identified opportunities to play on the strengths of each technology partner to create a better, cost-effective service for the NGO sector
  • Creation of high-quality Data Standard, to time and within budget
  • High interest from participants to be engaged in phase three of the project, focusing on identifying opportunities for interoperability


As a membership organization comprising some of the biggest NGOs in the world, NetHope was uniquely placed to provide a stage to convene nonprofit organizations who were willing to participate in the creation of a common Data Standard. NetHope also harnessed its network of trusted technology partners who were keen to work together in a novel way to adapt their products to support Frontline Humanitarian Logistics system implementations.

Technology companies working together in this way has been a particularly special part of the project. As Kate Daniels of Oracle NetSuite (one of the companies involved in the project) said, “this is the first time technology partners have worked with other technology partners to solve a problem across any sector. There was significant value in this, and we should use this approach going forward.”

NetHope also identified potential donors to provide funding for the project and NetHope has agreed to own and administer the Intellectual Property for the Data Standard, to be held as a common good for the nonprofit sector as a whole.


Proteus, a digital change consultancy, known to the sector and some of the world’s biggest technology companies, provided a project structure that enabled continued collaboration between the non-profit organizations, NetHope and technology partners. This was the first time a project had been managed in this way in the sector, to resolve a common problem. This approach was key in light of the high-risk exposure for the project created by Covid19, which needed to be continuously managed.

The collaborative delivery approach was essential for stakeholder buy-in, both during the project to create the Data Standard, and to ensure the standard would be applied by technology partners and non-profits for future frontline system implementations.

Proteus introduced appropriate project governance and controls which ultimately created a high-quality Data Standard within time and budget.


FHL was originally designed in three phases:

Phase 1, which was completed in early 2020, consisted of a learning exercise – pulling from the experiences of the humanitarian logistics subject matter experts, to find out what those experts had tried, or had in place, or had not been able to put in place, and why. The report for this learning exercise is available here.

Phase 2 of the project started in the spring of 2020, and (as described above) resulted in the first published version of the common data standard which includes the common processes across frontline humanitarian logistics and the common data entities agreed against each process. It engaged nonprofits and technology vendors (full list below) to solve the problem together.

The project’s participants and their organizations have started on the 3rd phase of the project which aims to render the data and processes models into useable technology solutions.

From initial discussions across contributors, Phase 3 could deliver further significant benefits for the sector such as:

  • Advocacy and embedding of the standard in the sector, for example to ensure vendor products are adapted to incorporate the data standard by default.
  • Interoperability use cases and opportunities across organizations through the FHL systems/protocols.
  • Interoperability use cases and opportunities between internal systems (e.g. Logistics and Finance system integrations)
  • Providing a support and knowledge framework for organizations that are in the process of implementing an ERP system that contains logistics capabilities – to share lessons learned/best practice from FHL Data Standard.
  • Introducing/Scoping certification processes and/or quality assurance about how the FHL Data Standard is embedded and used in future systems.
  • Enables creation of common sector wide KPIs around frontline humanitarian logistics.

To maximize the chance of success for Phase 3, the FHL Team is working to realistically scope the work and identify design options for the embedding and scaling of these exciting opportunities.

Please join us at the NetHope Virtual Global Summit 2020, in our session on Frontline Humanitarian Logistics, to find out more!

The Frontline Humanitarian Logistics Data Standard is published here

We would welcome your comments and participation in this project as we keep gaining momentum to change Frontline Humanitarian Logistics forever, for the greater good.


ACTED, Action Contre la Faim, British Red Cross, Catholic Relief Services, Concern Worldwide, Danish Refugee Council, EY (Ernst & Young), FHI 360, GOAL, Habitat for Humanity International, Humanity & Inclusion, HUMLOG Institute / Hanken School of Economics , IFRC, International Medical Corps, Islamic Relief Worldwide, Marie Stopes International, Microsoft, Norwegian Refugee Council, Oracle NetSuite, Oxfam, Salesforce, Save the Children, Team Rubicon USA, Unit4.

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