Last-mile logistics systems need quality demand and inventory data shared through reliable coordination mechanisms to prevent unnecessary cost and waste. But in global health, the ideal condition — real time actionable data — is difficult to come by. Ground realities contribute to this. Poor road infrastructure means long delivery lead times, the absence of computerized systems result in major information delays, and people generally operate without deep visibility into what else is happening along the supply channel. These obstacles magnify uncertainty, manifesting what operations researchers call the “bullwhip effect”.
To alleviate some of these problems, Logistimo deploys a mobile supply chain management (mSCM) technology with a sustainable business model. The ideas are simple: Allow users at the periphery of the network to communicate and transact in real-time using basic low-end handsets, ensure they can appreciate direct benefits, and charge a subscription fee for the service. We figured the way items are checked-out at the grocery store could be modelled in a mobile device for the global health context. However, we learned that implementation was far more challenging. Folks in remote rural areas of the developing world interact with technology differently, telephony infrastructure can be unreliable, and everyone is sensitive to cash flow. These are just examples underscoring the human, technology and business challenges that must be met when engineering and deploying a mobile LMIS.
So it became necessary to go beyond simply “mandating and training”. Catalyzing adoption and ensuring continued, sustainable use has helped us better understand what motivates enterprises and users at the base-of-pyramid. Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) emerged as a way to avoid heavy up-front costs of consulting required for building, configuring and deploying systems. Packaging an LMIS as a SaaS subscription minimized the risk businesses and individuals had to take in order to get started and realize benefits. But the model also generates advantages going forward. As any software developer will attest, requirements continually change and the technology must continually evolve to meet those needs. Maintaining, tweaking, and fixing also demand consulting. We find that our subscription model reflects the total cost of ownership in discrete monthly packets — simplifying the decision calculus for customers. What’s more, it aligns incentives — since we are not paid hourly for professional services, we are motivated to deliver, maintain and freely enhance a quality product to keep customers happily subscribed.
In the public sphere, we are often asked to open source Logistimo. To our knowledge, open sourcing typically achieves vast & sustained participation when users of the software are also the developers coding it. Linux, Apache and Firefox (for examples) are highly successful open initiatives — and in each case, the developers are making stuff they knew about intimately and wanted for their own use. However, most logistics enterprises in global health do not consider software developers as thought-contributors to supply chain design. There exists a distinction between designers/logisticians and developers. Unless this changes, a growing code base repository may not keep the appropriate degree of abstraction for it to be universally useful, and incremental deployments will continue to be costly and dependent on consulting services. That’s not to say the global health community wouldn’t evolve over time, but this is certainly the status quo. For this reason, we experiment with on-demand SaaS as a vehicle towards sustainability — not only for ourselves, but also for the code base to grow meaningfully rather than becoming outdated or obsolete tools in only a couple years because of lack of developer interest.
So how does Logistimo fit into the OpenLMIS ecosystem? The open source movement in global health logistics is critical because it offers choice. In a recent guidance from the White House called Technology Neutrality, Federal agencies are advised to evaluate proprietary, open source and mixed-source technologies “based on performance and value, and free of preconceived preferences based on how the technology is developed, licensed, or distributed.”
Moreover, OpenLMIS may finally create what global health logistics has been missing — genuine developer interest. In the medical records space, for example, the OpenMRS movement has created a strong developer community dedicated to electronic patient records. As a result, we’ve seen widespread proliferation and benefits of quality EMR technologies in public health. OpenLMIS has the potential to do the same for global health logistics, bridging the current gap between developers and logisticians.
We’re also encouraged by the promise of learning from and collaborating with the OpenLMIS community to advance the cause of logistics and supply chain management in healthcare. Beyond sharing requirements and lessons learned, Logistimo is now poised to take an “open API” approach — adopting an open architecture and APIs (data APIs, forecasting APIs, etc.) around which multiple solutions (e.g. analytical, visualization, web/desktop apps) are integrated and customized. The service would provide scalable data collection, aggregation, optimization, reporting and community building capabilities. In this context, we’d also offer a framework for experimentation and plug-ins others can put in. The hub for this activity could be OpenLMIS, supplementing gaps in Logistimo (and vice-versa). We would begin a co-evolutionary path wherein each system would grow in deep consideration of the other, and our combined learning would resonate. In the long run, the ecosystem of participants should offer a simple, scalable, flexible, affordable and rapidly deployed solution improving supply chain performance where it is needed the most.
Anup Akkihal is the CEO of Logistimo Inc.