Over the past several months, the pandemic has disrupted industries and nations around the world, driving many to alter their lifestyles to accommodate social distancing and quarantine measures to limit its spread. Few in the United States and other countries have gone untouched by the pandemic, which has taken thousands of lives and cost millions of jobs. Yet, a potentially more dangerous crisis looms as essential supply chains disrupted by COVID-19 threaten to grind to a halt. Without action from policymakers and the private sector, entire swaths of the globe may lose reliable access to food, medicine, and other necessities as suppliers struggle to meet demand.
On Tuesday, June 23, 2020, the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center hosted a panel discussion moderated by David Bray, PhD, to discuss potential solutions to the supply chain threat. The panel included Molly Jahn, PhD, Principle Investigator at the Jahn Research Group, Krista Pawley, Principal at Imperative Impact, Derry Goberdhansingh, Founder and CEO of Harper Paige LLC, and Robert Greenberg, CEO of G&H International Services, Inc.
Supply chains disrupted and communities endangered
The panelists were quick to point out the absurdity of some parts of the supply chain crisis. At the same time as farmers are disposing agricultural products due to reduced demand from distributors and corporate partners, many food banks lack even the most basic supplies. Unfortunately, the panel agreed, such dissonance isn’t unprecedented. Due to the complexity of our globalized economy, particularly in large sectors like food and agriculture, milk from a dairy farm outside Milwaukee likely never flows directly to grocery stores just a few miles away. Instead, farmers sell to manufacturers who sell to distributors who ship products across the world to fulfill contracts and meet demand in far flung communities.
Today, the panel explained, COVID-19 has exposed the weaknesses of an economy where every commercial interaction is made within the rigid confines of a supply chain rather than organically in a market system. Farmers dumping excess milk product might have no idea how needed their goods are in just a few miles away because their only trading relationship is with contracted distributors. Panelists pointed out how even the farmers who wish to support their neighbors or donate excess product have no idea where to turn to provide aid. The panelists hoped to use new technologies to address the lack of access to transparent data across supply chains and populations.
Transformative technologies: Using data to act
One way to address disrupted supply chains is to allow participants and observers at all levels to better understand what exactly is being disrupted. And, as the panel pointed out, the best way to achieve that is to create a better data framework for supply chain management. Currently, even within highly specialized supply chains, data taxonomies and storage systems tend to be incompatible. One panelist pointed to the example of schools in the same district using different systems to log their IT and physical supplies.
Unified data systems would facilitate greater transparency as farmers, food bank operators, and agribusiness corporations could share data about the supply of and demand for critical food products, for example. One of the best ways to execute this vision, the panel argued, would be a data trust, where data could be stored by a neutral third party and overseen by a coalition of public, private, and NGO partners, making vital information accessible to all while maintaining individual privacy and security. The panel emphasized that the technology to develop this kind of system exists. Companies, governments, and individuals simply need to come together and volunteer their data and resources in such a collective effort.
Empowering communities with data
With access to this kind of data on a vast scale, local communities and individuals could make large strides in addressing disruptions and disparities. However, the current data economy environment incentivizes companies and individuals to maintain isolated data structures, making it extremely difficult to connect communities in need with the tools to address their problems.
Companies also have a part to play by giving back to communities in a new, more direct way. Rather than donating money to local organizations or offering a company-wide incentive for individual community service, private entities could loan out expert technical staff to help local communities implement new data infrastructure ideas.
The panel emphasized repeatedly that the key to this innovative process, as with all technological development, is repeated experimentation. The panelists themselves have been involved in several attempts, both successful and not, to leverage data for local communities. Only testing and trying more programs will eventually lead to success. One example related to the food supply chain crisis, is foodsourceusa.com, where farmers and food distributors connect directly with local food banks, allowing requests for and offers of bulk quantities of specific products. The data-based tool facilitates donations of food at a much more direct and efficient level than supply chains ordinarily do.
The goal of any similar effort, the panel agreed, should be to provide agency to disempowered communities by granting them access to the data that will allow them to make the best possible decisions for themselves. As FoodSourceUSA demonstrates, individuals around the world yearn for opportunities to serve their communities and improve life for their neighbors. A data trust, or other similar structure, can empower them to act.
Henry Westerman joins the GeoTech Center as a Project Assistant, having served as an intern with the team this past summer. He is a member of the Class of 2021 in the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service studying Science, Technology, and International Affairs with a concentration in Security. Henry has previously interned with the Library of Congress Digital Strategy team, and at the Department of State Office of Science and Technology Cooperation. Henry’s primary academic interests include geospatial analysis, emerging technologies, and digital sensemaking; he also dabbles in Spanish and Philosophy.