A longer version of this post first appeared on the MIT Center for Civic Media’s blog.

A recent lunch at the Center for Civic Media and MIT Media Lab featured a graduate of the program, Leo Bonanni, and his beloved SourceMap project. He channeled professor Hiroshi Ishii’s description of the ideal Media Lab project being one that could go in a museum, an academic paper, and could be a business. SourceMap has checked all three boxes.

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Leo Bonanni discusses subsistence cocoa farming in West Africa.

SourceMap works as a business because there is a competitive advantage to knowing your supply chain and knowing your producers. There are two reasons for this: Firstly, manufacturers want to reduce volatility of sourcing. More importantly, sharing the supply chain is a marketing advantage. For example, a company like TOMS Shoes is proud of its supply chain and buy-one-give-one giving program. They use SourceMap to show it off.

SourceMap allows you to include links, QR codes, and other information in marketing materials so the end consumer has a way to find out the sources of the goods they have purchased. Users have grown to include researchers, and companies have discovered maps built for their own products by their own customers.

Since Leo created this technology, there has been growing demand for and regulations requiring supply chain visibility. The Securities and Exchange Commission started cracking down on greenwashing claims, where companies would exaggerate the environmental benefits of their products to boost sales in an increasingly eco-conscious marketplace.

Supply chain tracking can illustrate carbon footprints, ingredient quality, water footprint, eco-labeling, the presence of forced labor, and conflict minerals. More recently, Office Depot has been using SourceMap to show off its supply chain for recycled paper.

How could this help? Leo thinks that the first step is to create transparency, and provide a competitive advantage for companies that release the information. Then, in a second step, you could differentiate products based on the nature of their supply chain.

The mere act of trying to find out where parts start can shake things up. “You don’t know how many calls I’ve been on where a buyer and a seller have never spoken before,” he said. Traditional supply-chain management software just links the vendor and consumer, but SourceMap is trying to flesh out the rest of that network, including raw materials, processing, manufacturing, distribution and consumers.

the origins of sourcemap

Like all good Media Lab projects, SourceMap began with a lasercutter. Leo was an architect at MIT, and came over to the Media Lab to teach a FutureCraft course. It was a time of sticking computers in everything, including the kitchen sink. He started considering broader challenges. In 2007, Leo wanted to replicate the innards of his laptop, and found to his surprise that it took three months to figure out the data and sources of the materials in his laptop and lasercut the map onto his laptop.

It was the birth of the awareness that our computers aren’t just products, but compilations of some of the world’s most precious and rare materials, assembled and jammed into aluminum shells, used for a couple of years, and then dumped in the very same places where the raw materials were extracted (the Global South). In situations where jewelry and toys are found to contain lead and cadmium in them, it’s because computers were being melted down to make toys (pure lead and cadmium are far too precious to be intentionally used to produce toys). Leo realized that he could ask citizens to report on supply chains and go beyond what governments report.

Leo shared some examples of the fascinating stories that emerge when we investigate where things come from. For 300 years, all of the tin in the world came from Bangka Island, off the coast of Indonesia. Using Google Earth, it’s possible to look at mining sites and watch videos on how people do the mining. About half of the world’s tin still comes from Bangka Island, and the mining is very labor-intensive.

Working Out Transport Costs

The first version of SourceMap came out of the FutureCraft class, in an attempt to share with students where the materials for these products originated. SourceMap was unique in that it was on the web, where people could use it, and featured the first calculator for material transport costs for materials. This fit well into the aims of the FutureCraft class, since students were trying to develop technologies using materials native to a place, or upcycling objects that would otherwise be considered waste.

Leo’s friends in the restaurant industry in Cambridge, Mass., expressed interest in mapping their local food sources. Many menus these days mention sourcing locally, but SourceMap allowed Leo’s collaborators to print things like “90% of our ingredients by weight are sourced within 250 miles of the restaurant.” Exposing sourcemaps to your customers shows not just that the food is local, but also demonstrates the amount of attention invested in selecting ingredients.

Another pilot project collaborated with Media Lab member Highlands and Islands, of northern Scotland. They convinced small businesses to share their supply chains, and discovered that 18 breweries in northern Scotland were shipping their products over 9,000 km one-way to England for bottling. This led to the development of a new bottling company within Scotland.

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Leo then described a trip he took to India to look at fashion outlets and trace the clothes they sold back to the places where the cotton was being produced. This is a sensitive issue in India, since there’s been a steady string of suicides by poor farmers. Analyzing the supply chain exposes the unsustainable economic position subsistence farmers are left in: Farmers have to pay for fertilizers and seeds at a fixed price and sell clothes at a variable cost. After a few bad years, farmers can entirely lose their livelihood. (Aamir Khan produced a Bolloywood satire film about this crisis, called “Peepli Live.”)

The entire supply chain of cotton is stacked against the farmer. They wait in their homes for buyers to come by and offer a price, not knowing other buyers will make an offer. In a Fair Trade system, the most important thing cotton farmers can have is a scale that they know how to use. Another helpful technology is to have a receipt stamped to the bag. Next, farmers can develop their own fertilizer. Finally, it’s also important to develop local fashion markets.

After visiting India, Leo decided to start the SourceMap company and build tools to allow the crowdsourcing of source locations. He showed us an amazing Google Earth flyover, which reveals the mines and factories which lead to the production of a product.

He also talked about one use case in the domain of corporate social responsibility to document the specific data to back up marketing claims. As soon as you have visibility in your supply chain, you start considering how to improve the chain. It also introduces the possibility of meeting the people who made the product; do consumers want to be stitched into the network, like Shop for Change?

SourceMap today

The latest version of SourceMap is a collaborative touchscreen technology which allows a group of executives in a room to map out the supply chain together, playing with spatial relations between all the stakeholders and using data to imagine new, improved supply chains.

Another current example of the importance of supply chains is that of chocolate. Seventy percent of the chocolate the world consumes comes from subsistence farming in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. Several climate models predict a dire future for this region’s agricultural ability to continue growing cocoa on a timescale of only a few decades. A cocoa tree takes about 10 years to grow and come online. Knowing this, we can (and should) adjust accordingly.

Supply chains are the backbone of globalization, Leo concluded, and the right to know where things come from is the right to survive for many people around the world.

You can read more about this and some highlights from our Q&A session here.