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Data Scientists Map Supply Chains of Every ­.S. City

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Some food in the kitchen of most U.S. residents probably started life in Fresno, Calif.

The evidence? Vegetables and other products flow through a supply chain that moves them from where they're grown to where they're used. That supply chain is tracked through data, and the data can paint a powerful picture of how food, water, and energy move throughout the United States. The data illustrates how every corner of America is connected.

FEWSION is a data fusion project that maps the food, energy, and water supply chains for every community in the United States. The project is the brainchild of Benjamin Ruddell, an associate professor in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems at Northern Arizona University, who leads a multi-institution team of engineers and data scientists. FEWSION maps are now available for public use through the FEW-View website, allowing people to see whether their gas prices could be affected by a Gulf Coast hurricane (Possibly, the data says) or how much New Englanders should worry about water shortages on the other side of the country (A lot). This data was collected by hundreds of researchers at federal agencies and universities throughout the country and for the first time has been put into a searchable and visual form for anyone to use.

"This is a way to see that big data, to see your supply chains, see your lifelines," Ruddell says. "We look at exposure. If you have a lot of exposure in your supply chain, there is a strong potential for you to be affected by a drought, storm, or decision far away."

With FEWSION, people can map from the sources of their community's animal products, grains, meat, and other foodstuffs; crude oil, gasoline, natural gas, and electricity; and water sources. This is useful information for people who want to buy more local products or measure the sustainability of a community's food and energy consumption, but the purpose of this data is far greater. Ruddell sees FEWSION being useful for emergency managers, who can use it to plan ahead if a disaster or situation in some other part of the country is likely to affect their community; and sustainability officers who want to reduce their community's footprint by changing their commodity sourcing and supply chains. He also encourages K-12 and higher education teachers to introduce their students to the FEWSION website, which features video, a podcast, news, publications and links to other educational supply chain content and programs.

Richard Rushforth, the lead research scientist on the FEWSION project for NAU, led data development for FEWSION 1.0. It's a game-changer, he says. FEWSION allows researchers and also the public to access large datasets in an applicable way and learn more about where their food, water, and energy come from and how different regions of the country are interconnected.

"People want to know: How am I impacted locally? How is something happening on the other side of the country going to affect my life here?" Rushforth says. "Being able to have that data on hand visually and to be able to explore it is a really valuable tool."

How might the program be applied? FEWSION's website shows the supply chains linking New York City to Otter Tail County, Minnesota; Forsyth County, North Carolina; Bonneville County, Idaho; Monona County, Iowa; Yuma County, Arizona; and about half of California. These connections show more than the routes lettuce, almonds, citrus, fuel, and other commodities take to get to the country's biggest city. FEWSION visualizes the relationships that tie the United States together—relationships that often are invisible to the consumer, Ruddell said.

"Rural Americans and urban Americans are different in many ways," he says. "Their politics are very different, their lifestyles are different, but they depend on each other completely because of their supply chains. In particular, city dwellers need to understand that they get much of their food, clean water, and energy from rural Americans and from communities throughout the country. Without this kind of mapping, city dwellers can't see that connection, and because they don't see, they don't understand that they're exporting their environmental problems and food and energy production to their rural neighbors.

"When you see those connections, you can understand how to vote and spend your dollars in ways that benefit everyone—urban and rural—because we're all part of the same system," Ruddell says.

In addition to understanding that no location is a resource island, the data also empowers communities to invest in the security, resilience, and sustainability of their supply chains.

For example, the current drought emergency affecting the Colorado River is more than a regional problem, Ruddell says. If farms in Arizona or California run short of water, their supply of produce is reduced and the price of fresh food goes up nationwide.

"Members of the public should know where their food, energy, and water are coming from, to understand how connected they are," he says. "That can affect the way they see the world, and it can make you realize that problems in other places—other people's problems—are actually your problems too, and that changes everything about the way we see the world.

"Information is power—the power to create positive change," he says.

Ramesh Gorantla, a software development lead at Arizona State University's Decision Theater and part of the FEWSION team, says the project has the potential to enhance the supply chain and make communities more resilient.

"FEW-View provides a simple interface to explore the United States food, energy, and water supply chains," he says. "The tool performs massive big-data computations and displays the queried results in an intuitive way so an ordinary public user can use the data."

"We all depend on food, energy, and water," says Amy Walton, program director in the National Science Foundation's Office of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure, which funds FEWSION.  "Now, through FEWSION, we can see how what one community does affects its neighbor communities and how a community affects an entire ecosystem."

Information on communities' food, water, and energy sources, and on how FEWSION can benefit educators, emergency managers, community leaders, and sustainability officers, is available on the FEWSION website.

FEWSION was funded in 2016 by a grant from the Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems program (#INFEWS ACI-1639529), which is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the U.S Department of Agriculture.



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