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September 02 2011

16:54

Sourcemap Crowdsources Product Supply Chains, Carbon Footprints

This post was authored by Matthew Hockenberry, who co-created Sourcemap as a visiting scientist with the MIT Center for Civic Media.

Knowing where things come from is a fundamental part of humanity. Things are very different when they come from different places. The provenance of a work tells us the importance of not only where something has come from, but when it was created and who it was that fashioned it. Ancient vessels in Pompeii bear the eternal mark of Vesuvinum, and shelves of China are still identified by their geographic namesake.

With supply chains we talk about traceability, or being able to follow the source through every link on the chain. Environmental impact, climate change, conflict minerals and human rights abuses -- these are problems underpinning global trade. Defining our relationships with things as relationships with places and with people brings a renewed sense of humanity to our purchasing practices.

Sourcemap is an initiative to make information on the source of products and their supply chains public, so that we can make informed choices about their social and environmental impact. Developed by the MIT Center for Civic Media and the MIT Media Lab's Tangible Media Group, Sourcemap has grown over the past few years.

SOURCEMAP: WHERE WE'VE COME FROM

We created Sourcemap to allow anyone -- businesses, consumers, journalists and researchers -- to share the stories of global supply chains and their impacts on the world. Since our site became publicly accessible, we've been fortunate enough to have some wonderful individuals and organizations contribute to our work. We have more than 3,000 published maps and over 6,000 mapmakers, some of which you can see at the new Sourcemap.com.

Each day, the site features new items contributed by entrepreneurs, brand enthusiasts, students and researchers. Some are carefully researched case studies of unique and unfamiliar products. Some are personal explorations of where someone is traveling, or an investigation into what he or she bought at the store that day. Each of them is a testament to the curiosity about the things that occupy our lives and where they came from before they got to us.

There are sourcemaps of everything from an electric car to a detonator for blasting oil wells, from supplier networks of airplanes to carbon accounting for teleconferencing, from the industrial food on your plate to the small supply chains of local cuisine.

Bringing consumers and producers into the same dialogue has become a cornerstone of the work. We not only have the "right to know" where something comes from, we want producers to have the "freedom to say." These two groups -- those who consume and those who produce -- have been separate too long. They have grown apart not only in our minds, but in their placement in the world. To bring them together is to tie together communities from opposite sides of the world, to untangle the knots that have bound our understanding of global production and global supply chains.

PROVENANCE

Housed in the MIT Media Lab, Sourcemap began its life surrounded by people in the midst of making things -- things with blinking lights and beeping sounds. We began to ask questions about these things. What is the impact of a modern product? If we wanted to make it more sustainable, what material would we use? Should it be local, renewable or recycled?

We built something to answer these questions for product designers at the Media Lab, but we soon realized that everyone makes design choices: planning a trip, stocking a shelf, or putting a meal together. All of these decisions bring together disparate components from around the globe. And if we're all designers, then we should all be informed about our choices and the impact they can have on the world.

The growth of the local food movement brought together individuals deeply concerned with the sourcing of ingredients in their own communities. Our earliest collaboration involved a local food chef and caterer, Robert Harris, who was interested in sharing his sourcing practices with his customers. Sourcemap allowed him to create a menu that showed customers exactly where their food comes came from. In the summer months, when the majority of Robert's food is sourced locally, this practice connects customers with not only the ingredients in their food, but with the local community of New England farmers who grow it.

Through early fieldwork in the remote Highlands and islands of Scotland, we met people sensitive to the beauty of the land around them and the fragile community it supports. It's a community in search of a place in the larger world -- looking to continue a specific way of life and sustain the people who practice it. We met a hotel owner who wanted to offset her guests' carbon footprint, reinvesting it in the preservation of the forests they had come to see. We met a local butcher who wanted to understand the carbon footprint of his business. He discovered that the transportation of his native cattle, sheep and pork is only a minor part of the life cycle impact compared to the practices his suppliers adopt in raising the animals.

Sam Faircliff, who runs the Cairngorn Brewery, saw that her local industry relies on a bottling plant in central England. Building a plant at her facility drops the distance a bottle of beer travels by two-thirds, and improves competitiveness, creates jobs, and strengthens the region. There is more than one kind of sustainability, and this experience in the Highlands revealed that it was just as much about people as it was about things.

USING SOURCEMAP TO TELL NEW STORIES

Sourcemap provides information about where things come from, and in doing so, it presents a particular narrative of the trip products make before they get to us. Educators and journalists can use this information to develop research, synthesize it with other perspectives, and tell new stories that situate a product's place in our world.

futurecraft_poster09_forweb-184x300.jpg

Leo Bonanni, CEO of Sourcemap, held a "Futurecraft" class at MIT, which was an important developmental force for Sourcemap, and its role has continued with classes at NYU and Parsons. Parsons master's student Jennifer Sharpe mapped and filmed a video documentary revealing the supply chain behind a line of organic clothing. At the show, "Organic by John Patrick," clothing was shown alongside maps and videos detailing the larger process of manufacture and sourcing. One side of the gallery was filled with the flash of cameras as the clothing was modeled. On the other side, a film showed the sheep farm were the wool comes and the shops and craftspeople responsible for making it into finished garments. In cases like this one, food and clothing connect us to not only each other, but to the natural world that provides the possibility for their production.

Less close to home, we've seen instructors use Sourcemap with their students in numerous locations including Boston, New York, California, Montana, France, Slovakia, New Zealand and Australia. We've traveled to see the social impact of cotton farming in India and gotten a firsthand perspective on fair trade.

A collaboration with the University of Montana helped students understand food production issues that are a critical factor in Montana's future sustainability. These journalism students were able to map the fragile state of their food economy, as the raw materials necessary to produce beef and grain products must leave the state to be processed into finished foods. In each of these classrooms, Sourcemap is mobilized by communities that are displaced by the disjunctures of global supply chains and local economic, cultural and social forces.

FOOTPRINTS

This project comes from an appreciation for the role of the material world in our daily lives. It has, from the beginning, been about understanding how we can have more respect and appreciation for material culture. Things cannot speak, but if they could, what would they say? There's no easy answer for the role of objects in our lives. It's not about passing universal judgment on which things are "local," "organic," "green" or "good." As we saw in the Highlands, communities have unique needs, and they need to understand the supply chains that involve them to make choices that are sustainable over the long-term.

Things mean different things to different people, and the solution is to let the things do the talking.

Sourcemap has evolved significantly since the first few days when we scratched out a design for a "map of where things come from." The team has grown. We have begun architecting the next generation of Sourcemap. We've formed an initiative to unravel the mysteries of footprints and impacts. We've taken trips around the world on a mission to connect communities of consumers with communities of producers. Volunteers from digital media, business, design and journalism have offered their time and effort to make the project more effective and inclusive. Each map begins when someone asks -- just as we did when we began our work -- "Where does this come from?"

As part of this evolution, we recently announced a complete new release of Sourcemap, built with the efforts of our growing team and Chief Architect Reed Underwood. There are also a few changes in the way we do things. Sourcemap is now Sourcemap.com, the "crowd-sourced directory of product supply chains and carbon footprints." Under Bonanni's guidance, and through work with companies, non-profit organizations, experts, and everyday people, we hope that one day Sourcemap.com will allow us to make sustainable choices about the products and services we encounter.

At the same time, I will focus on Sourcemap Foundation, a non-profit research organization dedicated to understanding the fundamental issues at stake in global logistics.

The Brundtland commissioned defined sustainability as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations." Nothing is sustainable universally -- some things will be sustainable for some communities, and some will be for others. For us, sustainability gives us a connection with the past as we look to the future. It's the opportunity to learn from our mistakes while appreciating the legacy that has been handed down to us.

To understand our community and culture we must act like archaeologists, but what we practice is an archaeology of the present. It is possible to know where things come from. Instead of waiting to position the everyday objects of our lives from a future a hundred years from now, we must begin to unravel the origins of their people and places today.

March 14 2011

16:05

MIT Produces a String of Civic Media Success Stories

As we wind the way toward the end of our four year grant, I thought it would be nice to describe some of what we've learned at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media (C4). In the coming weeks, I will call on a few of our researchers to offer similar blog reflections on our unique blend of communities, information, and action.

First, though, I want to describe some of the exciting project highlights from the last few weeks. Because C4 is a multi-disciplinary institution, different projects end up affecting different audiences, so I wanted to put them all in one post.

GrassrootsMapping.org
Jeff Warren's project continues to spread, with new maps made in New York, China, and several other places by people with no MIT connection. We have so many continuing uploads from communities in the Gulf that we recently had to purchase new RAID storage. Good Magazine recently wrote about this growing project.

At MIT, we know that research was worth conducting when it spins off into a new enterprise. C4 researchers Jeff and Sara Anne Wylie have done just that, creating a new organization that tries to help communities by generating scientific information. Called the Public Laboratory of Science and Technology, it drives innovation that pushes grassroots mapping in new directions. Check their recent projects, like hacking cameras to view photosynthesis and make spectrograms to detect whether the photos that Gulf communities have been taking are really of BP's spilled oil.

grm.jpg

VoIP Drupal
VoIP Drupal, a project that research scientist Leo Burd has been working on for more than a year, was announced at DrupalCon last week. Several telephony developers have signed on to develop the VoIP side of the project, and they join famous Drupal group Civic Actions, which has been contributing on the Drupal scripting side. In brief: I'll be very surprised if "this isn't a big thing":http://www.pbs.org/idealab/2011/03/voip-drupal-kicks-off-at-drupalcon072.html.

Sourcemap
Another great project from C4 that is in the process of spinning off is Sourcemap, by Leo Bonanni and Matthew Hockenberry, which recently formed an independent governing foundation. Always popular with journalists and enviro-geeks, the project is now being taken on by businesses. One big development is that Office Depot is officially using Sourcemap on some of their product packaging.

Also, the University of Montana's School of Journalism collaborated with us over the past term by using Sourcemap as part of a class on online news. Our collaborators, Professor Lee Banville and American Public Media's Public Insight Network, wanted to connect journalism students in Banville's class with tools and technologies that construct perspectives and develop narrative frameworks for the web. In practice, this ranged from ideas on crowdsourced feedback and commentary to devices like web mapping that drive new presentations of stories.

BrownBagToolkit / Junkyard Jumbotron
The first part of research scientist Rick Borovoy's project on face-to-face information sharing has launched, and was immediately picked up by BoingBoing and Gizmodo. Check out this video explainer:

Junkyard Jumbotron from chris csik on Vimeo.

extrACT:
In mid-November, we launched the third stage of our extrACT project, WellWatch. A dozen communities in PA and NY have expressed interest in the system, so we are conducting a one-week training tour across the state in March.
wellwatchCollage.jpg

Between the Bars
The world's first blogging system for the incarcerated, who aren't allowed access to the Internet, attracted 400 prisoner users from 18 states before we had to suspend service (for reasons best explained later). Inventor Charles DeTar is now on a clear path to relaunch the system in the next few of weeks.

Cronicas de Heroes
Alyssa Wright created Hero Reports for NY, as an alternative to the City's "see something, say something" campaign. Making citizens suspicious of each other is not the first step toward creating a safer, more civic city. Last December we launched a Juarez version of the project called Cronicas de Heroes, which continues to bustle. Over 700 heroes have been acknowledged, and the press continues to make up for lost good news from a city that usually only gets attention when something bad is happening.

cronicasNewSmall.jpg

Alyssa and Yesica Guerra, who directed the Juarez implementation, were invited to and presented at TEDActive, the global do-gooder wing of the famous TED conference. New communities are asking to run Hero Reports, from Monterrey to South Wood County, Wisconsin. Just last week the project was cloned in Kazakhstan without any help from us!

As you can see, things can get pretty busy here at C4. Several other projects are in the works and should be launched in the next few months. Stay tuned to Idea Lab for updates.

March 04 2011

19:57

Office Depot: Using Sourcemap to sell more recycled paper

Congratulations to Center-founded project Sourcemap -- a free way to track and view component parts of consumer goods -- which has just announced its first big get: Office Depot and New Leaf Paper.

As Marc Gunter reported on his blog, Sourcemap will be the tool of choice for Office Depot and New Leaf Paper to visualize the sourcing of their recycled paper:

Beginning later this year, shoppers who buy Office Depot’s 100% Forest Stewardship Council-certified recycled paper will be able to use their mobile phones to read a QR code (a kind of barcode) on the package. They’ll then see a movie, like this one, that traces their paper back to its source. This paper was tracked from the GreenBiz’s State of Green Business Forum 2011 in Washington, D.C., back to the streets of Milwaukee. Please take a look:


February 17 2011

14:29

Sourcemap'd: Grain Drain in the Rocky Mountain West

(This is part of what we hope will be a larger series; a more comprehensive look at the communities using Sourcemap and those interesting uses they have developed.)

The University of Montana's School of Journalism collaborated with us over the past term by using Sourcemap as part of a class on online news. Our collaborator, Lee Banville, wanted to connect journalism students in his class with tools and technologies that construct perspectives and develop narrative frameworks for the web. In practice, this ranged from ideas on crowd-sourced feedback and commentary to devices like web mapping that drive new presentations of stories.

The students focused on local food issues. Montana suffers from "grain drain." Despite the heavy production of raw ingredients, there isn't any food processing done in the state. This has created a reliance on the import of grain and beef products from other sources, sometimes in a cyclical supply chain. In order to understand this problem, students used two different technologies and drew on the communities around them. They used Sourcemap to map products that touch on local food production and consumption—products that are sourced or consumed within the state. They also used the American Public Media's Public Insight Network, a community developed to find diverse news sources and increase the range of available perspectives in reporting. By partnering with tens and thousands of experts and members of the public who have agreed to support news coverage, they are able to construct stories with richer detail and dialogue.

The efforts of these student journalists were recently covered by New West, running stories that describe the local food movement and agricultural shifts shaping the region. This series (linked below) was written and edited by students. These articles represent only a piece of the cross cutting investigation into the story of food production and consumption in Montana and the American Rocky Mountains.

This project underscores our interest in a transparent approach to understanding the geography of production. What we eat and where it comes from can have profound effects on our communities. It also furthers our interest (and the interests of the Center) in "fragile" communities that are (perceptually at least) more geographically isolated. While Sourcemap can contribute to the research process for this kind of work, we need continued collaboration with journalists and investigators who can appropriately contextualize these supply chains—to tell us how "where things come from" changes how we live.

As part of their investigation, students researched sourcemaps of diverse products and their impact in Montana:

Student Sourcemaps

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Matthew is the Cofounder and Director of Sourcemap.org.

April 01 2010

16:56

At PBS IdeaLab: "Sourcemap Makes Data Visualizations Transparent"

The latest C4FCM post from the Idea Lab blog:

While pitched as a way to create and visualize "open supply chains," Sourcemap's real virtue is that the data itself is fully sourced. Like the links at the bottom of a Wikipedia article and the accompanying edit history, you know exactly who added the data and where that data came from. You can take that data and make counter-visualizations if you feel the data isn't correctly represented. Sourcemap's very structure acknowledges that visualization is an editorial process and gives others a chance to work with the original data. For example, here's an example of a Sourcemap for an Ikea bed:

Read the rest at PBS MediaShift Idea Lab: "Sourcemap Makes Data Visualizations Transparent"

March 31 2010

13:53

Sourcemap Makes Data Visualizations Transparent

Yesterday colleagues of mine at MIT were brainstorming plenaries for an upcoming media conference. Data visualization came up, but each of us grumbled. "Overdone," one of us said, to nodding heads. We'd done a session on that at every one of our conferences and forums, as had others at theirs. Data visualization had become tragically hip, as if we were in charge of a music festival and one of us had just proffered Coldplay.

But as we teased out our reservations, we realized that it wasn't visualization that we had an issue with; yes, we agreed, it's an overdone topic, but it's still incredibly useful. Rather, data was the problem. Despite the great leaps made in representing information, we were disappointed in the relatively teeny steps taken to explain how that information is collected, organized, and verified. (In the meeting, I half-jokingly suggested adding a credit card company executive to a plenary, given their companies' dependence on accurate data. It wasn't dismissed out of hand.)

The key issue, it turns out, is transparency throughout the entire data-collecting process (something we wouldn't expect to get from a credit card exec). Matt Hockenberry and Leo Bonanni here at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media try to address this issue with their project Sourcemap.

While pitched as a way to create and visualize "open supply chains," Sourcemap's real virtue is that the data itself is fully sourced. Like the links at the bottom of a Wikipedia article and the accompanying edit history, you know exactly who added the data and where that data came from. You can take that data and make counter-visualizations if you feel the data isn't correctly represented. Sourcemap's very structure acknowledges that visualization is an editorial process and gives others a chance to work with the original data. For example, here's an example of a Sourcemap for an Ikea bed:

In another example, the Washington Post yesterday published a piece about food fraud -- food whose contents or origins are misrepresented. You could use Sourcemap to out companies that lie about their food products. But using the same data, a food producer could use Sourcemap to show how consumer prices are lowered by using certain substitute ingredients and not others. The same goes for visualizations of campaign contributions, federal spending on hospitals, rural broadband penetration, your mayor's ability to get potholes filled, etc. The key, though, isn't necessarily good visualization but good data.

I don't want to understate the genius of good visualizations. But as they say: garbage in, garbage out. Without well collected, well organized, transparent data, you never know if you're looking at a mountain of trash.

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