See Where Stuff Comes From With SourceMap

Sourcemap typical laptop computer supply chain image
Migrated Image

Image: SourceMap

You have certainly heard that buying local is "greener". You have probably also heard counter-arguments: a product made more efficiently but shipped some distance may beat out a local product. But all that talk is merely theoretical if you don't know where your stuff comes from anyhow. And in the new global economy, the "made in" tag on a product does not tell half the story. What is the discerning consumer to do?

Imagine a future in which pointing a PDA at a product bar code returns an instant readout of product source and environmental footprint to inform the buyer's decision. This future could be reality with SourceMap. Designed as a "collective tool for transparency and sustainability," SourceMap aims to be the Wiki of visualizing supply chains. SourceMap is a project of Media Labs, a division of MIT. Developers have adapted the Google Earth geotagging capabilities to the purpose of charting the components that go into products. After two years in develpment, the site is live in beta, and a SourceMap pilot project is underway in Scotland, where businesses can input data on sourcing and supply to share with customers. SourceMap hopes to show that a marketing and social networking advantage justifies the effort of businesses to create transparent reports.

You Can Help SourceMap Track Stuff
Going into the live phase as an open source project, SourceMap needs volunteers. The site will be only as good as its content, and since most people do not know where stuff comes from, SourceMap is looking in particular for

  • Product Designers
  • Supply Chain and Inventory Management experts
  • Life Cycle Assessment specialists

If you are interested in such a project, you are probably also the type of person using Firefox or Safari. If not, be warned: SourceMap is beta, and not yet optimized for Internet Explorer. Which is probably just as well, because the site needs some time in the hands of the tech-savvy before it is ready for prime time.

How SourceMap Works
If you just want to browse where stuff comes from, take a look at a typical laptop computer or an iPod. If you want to contribute to creating a SourceMap, check out the parts catalog or transport catalog. Each SourceMap combines parts and transport to fully characterize the final product. Each part and mode of transport has an average CO2 emission factor associated with it.

What is Next for SourceMap
Currently, there are not many products defined in SourceMap. We are guessing a lot of people will start playing with the site, creating maps like Borjiz's homegrown tomatoes, tied with thread from Taiwan. Or Katherine's raw granola, with groats from China, cinnamon from Sri Lanka and honey from Oregon. This will result in lots of maps that are dead ends or downright useless. Moderators are urgently needed, and a system to identify useful product maps from stuff "under construction" would be helpful.

Nonetheless, we find that the SourceMap experiment is highly promising. Open source may be a good way to solve the issue of constantly changing supply chain information...if the quality of the information input by site users can be verified and controlled. SourceMap certainly answers the question Jaymi asks about emissions software: "Does it all matter if consumers don't know?"