Over the past three years, Ben Ruddell, associate professor of NAU’s School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems (SICCS), has led a team of multi-institution engineers and data scientists in developing FEWSION, a data fusion project that maps the food, energy and water supply chains for every community in the United States. The maps are based on an enormous amount of data collected by hundreds of researchers at federal agencies and universities throughout the country.
The team recently launched a public-facing website, called FEW-View™, that for the first time enables citizens and community leaders to use FEWSION maps to understand the hidden connections between the supply chain and severe weather events and natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes and droughts—as well as the effects of public policy and other decisions.
“This is a way to see that big data, to see your supply chains, see your lifelines,” Ruddell said. “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 made far away.”
With the online mapping tool, people can map the sources of their community’s animal products, grains, meat and other foodstuffs; crude oil, gasoline, natural gas and electricity; and water sources. Although this is useful information for consumers who want to buy more local products or measure the sustainability of their community’s food and energy consumption, this data is designed for a far greater purpose.
Ruddell sees FEWSION being especially 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 for 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 website, which features video, a podcast, news, publications and links to other educational supply chain content and programs.
Richard Rushforth, NAU’s lead research scientist on the FEWSION project, led data development for FEWSION 1.0. It’s a game-changer, he said; FEWSION enables not only researchers but 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?” he said. “Being able to have that data on hand visually and to be able to explore it is a really valuable tool.”
“Rural Americans and urban Americans are different in many ways,” he said. “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.”
In addition to understanding that no city is a resource island, this knowledge 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 not just a regional problem, Ruddell said. If farms in Arizona or California run out of water, the supply of produce is reduced and the price of fresh food goes up nationwide.
Information is power
“Members of the public should know where their food, energy and water are coming from, to understand how connected they are,” Ruddell said. “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. It can change the way we vote; it can change our priorities.
“Information is power—the power to create positive change.”
FEWSION was funded in 2016 by a grant from the Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems program (#INFEWS ACI-1639529) through the National Science Foundation and the U.S Department of Agriculture.