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Track products from their origins with a publicly-populated mapping system

by Greg Stefano
on 24 January 2011

Whole Foods signage lists veggie origins so why shouldn't you know where your computer comes from? Like most commonplace products, despite the public's growing desire to know sources, tracing supply chains isn't easy to do. Enter the user-driven site Sourcemap, an open-source, interactive database for tracking the origins and impacts of anything from a Macbook to a menu.

The upshot of a class taught by founder Leo Bonanni at MIT's Media Lab, Sourcemap lets users create, edit and browse maps detailing the supply chain and carbon footprint of a variety of products. Anyone can create a map for just about anything imaginable and, as a socially-driven site, other users can edit and add to that map, connecting the dots of where materials come from and their carbon cost. To help get the info out there, Sourcemap lets any user print out a QR code that leads back to its map, so you can easily share the information in both digital and physical worlds.


Visualizing the paths of global commerce makes for a surprisingly profound and educational experience. Features like the ability to draw lines on the map between points of material origin connects the cultures, stories and people involved. But with heaps of geopolitical information, doing something like browsing for a standard laptop really illustrates the interconnected nature of modern global culture.

In a talk at the Greener Gadgets 2010 conference, Bonanni points out that every laptop contains 23 grams of Lithium, and 98% of the world's Lithium comes from Bolivia. What does it mean for the computer industry if Bolivia decides to hold back?


Sourcemap examples beyond the tech industry and other massive industrial processes also make good case studies to show the idea's potential. A caterer who sells locally-sourced food created a map tracking the local farms he uses. He posts these food maps online and prints them on the menu at catered events, displaying his business' commitment to buying locally while giving the client a greater understanding of the food's literal origin. One Scottish brewery saw their English bottling facility was inefficient and moved that operation closer to home to reduce costs and their carbon footprint.

Save actually traveling to the farm, Sourcemap's solution to supply-chain issues—from legitimizing product origin to enlightening consumers on how their money is spent thorough—might just be the comprehensive educational tool that the complex problem needs.

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