Creating Technology for Social Change

Sourcemap’d: Grain Drain in the Rocky Mountain West

(This is part of what we hope will be a larger series; a more comprehensive look at the communities using Sourcemap and those interesting uses they have developed.)

The University of Montana’s School of Journalism collaborated with us over the past term by using Sourcemap as part of a class on online news. Our collaborator, Lee Banville, wanted to connect journalism students in his class with tools and technologies that construct perspectives and develop narrative frameworks for the web. In practice, this ranged from ideas on crowd-sourced feedback and commentary to devices like web mapping that drive new presentations of stories.

The students focused on local food issues. Montana suffers from “grain drain.” Despite the heavy production of raw ingredients, there isn’t any food processing done in the state. This has created a reliance on the import of grain and beef products from other sources, sometimes in a cyclical supply chain. In order to understand this problem, students used two different technologies and drew on the communities around them. They used Sourcemap to map products that touch on local food production and consumption—products that are sourced or consumed within the state. They also used the American Public Media’s Public Insight Network, a community developed to find diverse news sources and increase the range of available perspectives in reporting. By partnering with tens and thousands of experts and members of the public who have agreed to support news coverage, they are able to construct stories with richer detail and dialogue.

The efforts of these student journalists were recently covered by New West, running stories that describe the local food movement and agricultural shifts shaping the region. This series (linked below) was written and edited by students. These articles represent only a piece of the cross cutting investigation into the story of food production and consumption in Montana and the American Rocky Mountains.

This project underscores our interest in a transparent approach to understanding the geography of production. What we eat and where it comes from can have profound effects on our communities. It also furthers our interest (and the interests of the Center) in “fragile” communities that are (perceptually at least) more geographically isolated. While Sourcemap can contribute to the research process for this kind of work, we need continued collaboration with journalists and investigators who can appropriately contextualize these supply chains—to tell us how “where things come from” changes how we live.

As part of their investigation, students researched sourcemaps of diverse products and their impact in Montana:

Student Sourcemaps

Matthew is the Cofounder and one of the Directors of