32 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
Simulation and optimization
for rapid response after a disaster
Old Dominion cloud-based platform seeks to coordinate relief efforts
By Ghaith Rabadi
May 2021 | ISE Magazine 33
According to Our World in Data website, natu-
ral disasters accounted for an average of 60,000
deaths per year in the past decade, but given the
high year-to-year variability in the data, some
devastating events pushed the number to more
than 200,000 in some cases (“Natural Disasters,
Hannah Ritchie, OurWorldInData.org). The numbers are
staggeringly high when human-caused disasters, wars, and
pandemics are included. With the rate at which the climate
is changing, no one expects natural disasters’ frequency and
intensity to decline any time soon.
When disasters strike, it is common for the situation to
become chaotic partially due to the misuse of resources, inef-
ficient use of volunteers and the lack of coordination among
governments, emergency response units and humanitarian
organizations. On more than one occasion, social media had
become the new 911 (see Figure 1 from media outlets when
Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017). The solution we present ad-
dresses this problem of coordinating and optimizing assign-
ment of resources and personnel to multiple modes of trans-
portation across multiple organizations with the objective of
deploying relief and aid in the shortest possible time using
simulation and optimization techniques.
Situational awareness from weather forecasting models to
social media posts and images are infused into the framework
to produce robust plans. Artificial intelligence (AI) deep
learning, machine learning and natural language processing
(NLP) techniques are implemented to contextualize and ex-
tract critical but trustworthy information from social media
outlets during a crisis.
The story started in 2017 with a research project to solve a
rapid military deployment problem sponsored by NATO Al-
lied Command Transformation (ACT). It involved professors
of engineering management and systems engineering at Old
Dominion University (ODU) that included me and Mama-
dou Seck. In this project, NATO presented a hypothetical
but plausible scenario to transport and deploy large numbers
of personnel, vehicles and containers rapidly and efficiently
from multiple NATO countries to a region with unrest or
hostility. Along with our students, we developed simulation
and optimization algorithms that did just that by modeling
and solving the problem as a multicommodity, multimode
transportation problem.
In the same year, the ODU team responded to the first
NATO Innovation Challenge in which a hypothetical sce-
nario of a hurricane that hits the U.S. East Coast was posted
(not a purely hypothetical situation given that three of the
five costliest hurricanes in U.S. history hit that year). Our
proposed solution capitalized on the rapid deployment re-
search project conducted earlier that year to optimize the op-
erations of humanitarian logistics. Operations research meth-
ods were used to improve the loading and routing of relief
resources from multiple international and local organizations
to the disaster region. Our ODU engineering management
team won the first position among more than 50 competing
teams of universities and companies from all over the world
(see related story).
For NATO, the proposal of a cloud-based platform to
support disaster response across multiple organizations in
different countries is a novel idea that was worth pursuing,
especially that crisis management is one of NATO’s three
strategic core tasks as outlined in its Strategic Concept of
2010 (www.nato.int/strategic-concept/index.html). After several
demonstrations of the research prototype, NATO ACT,
Eye of the storms
Sample news headlines from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 indicate problems with disaster response in Texas.
34 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
Simulation and optimization for rapid response after a disaster
through its Innovation Hub, in 2019 decided to support our
idea of translating the research into a real solution that can
support disaster response for NATO nations and its partners.
NATO’s Crisis Management and Disaster Response Center
of Excellence (CMDR CoE) was our collaborator through-
out the project as an end user.
This event was a turning point to get the research out of
the lab and into the real world through an entrepreneurial
startup to develop a minimum viable product software for
this problem in less than a year. I founded POLARes (Plan-
ning and Optimization Labs for Analytics, Research and
Simulations, www.polaress.com) to develop iHELP (Intelligent
Holistic Emergency Logistics Platform, www.Ihelplogistics.
Cloud-based platform aids
allocation of key resourcces
The core idea of the project was to develop a cloud-based
engine that simulates and optimizes the allocation of re-
sources and transporters to deliver relief and personnel to the
disaster location in the shortest possible time. Then the goal
is to dene services and activities needed at the disaster site
using local and delivered resources. Multiple organizations
could choose to share resources and be part of the same di-
saster scenario. The platform produces effective solutions that
maximize the use of resources by matching the needs at the
affected locations with available resources and humanitarian
The architecture of the developed system is shown in Fig-
ure 2 and includes the following main components:
Supply and demand module. The planner or analyst
can input supply information in the form of available con-
sumable and reusable resources, as well as demand-needs
information, at the disaster zone from various organizations
and sources of information.
Transportation planner. The combinations of com-
modities, people and other resources are prioritized by al-
gorithms that consider item priorities, transportability and
compatibility, as well as the availability and capacity of vari-
ous types of transporters. A matching of supply and demand
is executed to dene a list of items that can be transported
across a complex, multimode transportation network after
taking into account infrastructure availability (airports, sea-
ports, rail ports and roads).
Service planner. The analyst defines service needs such
as search-and-rescue, evacuation, food distribution and med-
ical attention, among other services, required at the disaster
location with preferences for the method of executing these
tasks. An algorithm optimizes the allocation of resources to
services according to a priority system that fulls the needs
in the shortest possible time. KPIs such as inventory levels,
task start and end times, service fullment rates and delayed
iHELP system architecture
The platform maximizes resources by matching the needs at the affected locations with available resources and humanitarian relief.
May 2021 | ISE Magazine 35
services are tracked in the system.
Disruption module. Given the stochastic nature of disas-
ters, disruptions due to transportation infrastructure failures
or other reasons are handled through rerouting algorithms
that can suggest alternative routes to reach the disaster area.
This is similar to how smart GPS apps reroute drivers around
traffic jams.
Weather module. The developed system communicates
through Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) with
weather forecasting platforms to identify extreme weather
conditions that may cause disruptions to the response plan,
and feed that back into the disruption module. This informa-
tion is useful for providing the analyst with weather aware-
ness in assessing logistical plans in both the disaster zone and
the disaster response zones.
Social media module. Input from social media plat-
forms such as Twitter and Facebook can be processed to ex-
tract trustworthy information by using some of the latest AI
models, including NLP, deep learning, machine learning and
image recognition to identify posts and images relevant to
ODU team wins first NATO Innovation Challenge
A team of faculty and students from Old
Dominion University’s Department of
Engineering Management and Systems
Engineering recently won $25,000 for its
creative business model at the university’s
first NATO Global Innovation Challenge.
The $15,000 ODU Lion’s Lair-Hillier
Ignite prize was awarded to the team as well
as a $10,000 service package for business
model creation and validation through
ODU’s Center for Enterprise Innovation’s
TempO program.
The event was held in conjunction with
ODU’s “Lion’s Lair” competition. The theme
was finding more effective ways to help NATO and other disaster response organizations to stabilize troubled areas and save lives
following a major event.
The winning team, which included engineering management professors Mamadou Seck, Ghaith Rabadi and Jingwei Huang and
Ph.D. students Hesamoddin Tahami, Chris Knight and Wael Khallouli, presented a project that used social media and big data
algorithms to assign the best relief job to the right group of personnel and volunteers in the event of a disaster.
“We can look at recent examples like Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Katrina where authorities were overwhelmed,” team leader
Seck said. “People were calling 911 lines and were not able to get through. We see more people turning to social media to air their
request for support.
“You also have multiple organizations like the Red Cross working on the same location but without any coordination layered
between which is an inefficient use of resources. This project addresses situational awareness so at every moment we know where
help is needed.”
Out of 10 finalists from the U.S., United Kingdom and Belgium, the ODU team’s project was selected Oct. 27, 2017, by a panel of
judges inside the Darden College of Education’s auditorium.
“This is a prototype of the kind of event and collaboration that we are trying to foster. It helps the region, the institution and all of
our partners,” said Marty Kaszubowski, the Center for Enterprise Innovation’s executive director.
The second winning team in the NATO Innovation Challenge was the What3Words group from the U.K. It created a geocoding
system that encodes geographic coordinates into three dictionary words instead of using long strings of letters or numbers like
other location encoding systems. This project helps with communication during disasters as well as postal deliveries, navigation
and asset management.
What3Words was also awarded a $10,000 service package from ODU’s Center for Enterprise Innovation’s TempO program and a
fully paid trip to NATO’s annual Transformation Conference in December.
Noell Saunders, www.odu.edu
The winning engineering management team from Old Dominion University included
(left to right) professors Jingwei Huang, Mamadou Seck and Ghaith Rabadi and
Ph.D. students Hesamoddin Tahami, Wael Khallouli and Chris Knight.
36 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
Simulation and optimization for rapid response after a disaster
the disaster and classify them into different categories (such
as fire, flood, collapse, injury, death, etc.). Furthermore, the
extracted tweets and posts are contextualized and an aggre-
gate trust score is computed and passed to the analyst to con-
sider when allocating resources. In crisis situations, and when
911 systems become very busy or overwhelmed, social media
platforms become a critical source of information, especially
now that intelligent algorithms can decipher the information
and extract the trustworthy elements of it.
Given the fact that iHELP is deployed on the cloud, there
is no need to install and maintain software on the client side.
Furthermore, the systems back end implements cloud-based
databases to reliably store information and display the output
on a web front end that uses some of the latest technologies
such as REACT (for visualization on Google maps) and Ja-
vaScript to present statistical output on a web dashboard (as
shown in Figure 3).
Finally, all components communicate via application pro-
gramming interfaces and web services that make communi-
cating with other systems in the future seamless and scalable.
This is especially important for decentralization of data that
may come from various public and private sources.
Validation of the system
Although iHELP has not been used in a real disaster yet, as
it is less than a year old, NATO’s Crisis Management and
Disaster Response Center of Excellence in Soa, Bulgaria,
was involved throughout the project as an end user. It pro-
vided realistic disaster scenarios to test the system and vali-
date the results based on its staff experience. Its involvement
has greatly contributed to the development of methods and
models that can be used in real-life scenarios.
However, we believe it is necessary to work with other
disaster response organizations such as the U.N. Office for
the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Red Cross and
Federal Emergency Management Agency, among others, to
enhance the systems ability to adapt to various types of sce-
It is very common for faculty members at universities to
pursue sponsored funding for their research ideas, especially
in the fields of science and engineering. It is less frequent,
however, for university research projects to evolve from basic
and theoretical research to applied research and turn their
work into a solution applicable to real-world problems.
This project is an example of an innovative research pro-
gram that applies principles of industrial engineering and op-
erations research to disaster response and crises management
through open innovation platforms and entrepreneurial ac-
tivity. We hope that not only would iHELP be sustainable
but will also save lives.
Ghaith Rabadi is a professor of engineering management & systems
engineering at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. He
is former vice president for R&D at Princess Sumaya University
for Technology in Amman, Jordan (2018-2020). As an entrepre-
neur, he founded POLARes LLC. He received a bachelors degree
in industrial engineering from Jordan University, and his masters
and Ph.D. in industrial engineering from the University of Central
Florida. His research interests include planning and scheduling, mod-
eling and simulation, supply chain management and logistics, data
analytics and articial intelligence. His research has been funded by
different agencies including NASA, NATO, the U.S. Department
of Homeland Security, Virginia Port Authority, MITRE, Boeing
and Qatar Foundation. He is the author of two books and more than
100 peer-reviewed journal and conference articles and book chapters.
Contact him at grabadi@odu.edu; grabadi@polaress.com.
iHELP visualization front end
JavaScript is used to present statistical output on a web dashboard.