Creating Technology for Social Change

Leo Bonanni exposes the backbone of globalization with SourceMap


Today’s lunch featured a graduate of the Center for Civic Media and MIT Media Lab, Leo Bonanni, and his beloved SourceMap project. He channels Hiroshi Ishii’s description of the ideal Media Lab project being one that could go in a museum, an academic paper, and could be a business. SourceMap has checked all three boxes.

Leo was an architect at MIT, and came over to the Media Lab to teach a FutureCraft course. It was a time of sticking computers in everything, including the kitchen sink. He started considering broader challenges.

Like all good Media Lab projects, SourceMap began with a lasercutter. In 2007, Leo wanted to replicate the innards of his laptop, and found to his surprise that it took three months to figure out the data and sources of the materials in his laptop and lasercut the map onto his laptop.

It was the birth of the awareness that our computers aren’t just products, but compilations of some of the world’s most precious and rare materials, assembled and jammed into aluminum shells, used for a couple of years, and then dumped in the very same places where the raw materials were extracted (the Global South). In situations where jewelry and toys are found to contain lead and cadmium in them, it’s because computers were being melted down to make toys (pure lead and cadmium are far too to be intentionally used to produce toys). Leo realized that he could ask citizens to report on supply chains and go beyond what governments report.

Leo shares some examples of the fascinating stories that emerge when we investigate where things come from. For 300 years, all of the tin in the world came from Bangka Island, off the coast of Indonesia. Using Google Earth, it’s possible to look at mining sites and watch videos on how people do the mining. About half of the world’s tin still comes from Bangka Island, and the mining is very labor-intensive.

The first version of SourceMap came out of the FutureCraft class, in an attempt to share with students where the materials for these products originated. SourceMap was unique in that it was on the web, where people could use it, and featured the first calculator for material transport costs for materials. This fit well into the aims of the FutureCraft class, since students were trying to develop technologies using materials native to a place, or upcycling objects that would otherwise be considered waste.

Leo’s friends in the restaurant industry in Cambridge expressed interest in mapping their local food sources. Many menus these days mention sourcing locally, but SourceMap allowed Leo’s collaborators to print things like “90% of our ingredients by weight are sourced within 250 miles of the restaurant.” Exposing sourcemaps to your customers shows not just that the food is local, but also demonstrates the amount of attention invested in selecting ingredients.

mapAnother pilot project collaborated with Media Lab member Highlands and Islands, of northern Scotland. They convinced small businesses to share their supply chains, and discovered that eighteen breweries in northern Scotland were shipping their products over 9,000 km one-way to England for bottling. This led to the development of a new bottling company within Scotland.

The SAP term for where sources originate is ‘wheremade.’ This information is almost always missing.

Leo then described a trip he took to India to look at fashion outlets and trace the clothes they sold back to the places where the cotton was being produced. This is a sensitive issue in India, since there’s been a steady string of suicides by poor farmers. Analyzing the supply chain exposes the unsustainable economic position subsistence farmers are left in: Farmers have to pay for fertilisers and seeds at a fixed price and sell clothes at a variable cost. After a few bad years, farmers can entirely lose their livelihood. [Aamir Khan produced a Bolloywood satire film about this crisis, called Peepli Live].

The entire supply chain of cotton is stacked against the farmer. They wait in their homes for buyers to come by and offer a price, not knowing other buyers will make an offer. In a Fair Trade system, the most important thing cotton farmers can have is a scale that they know how to use. Another helpful technology is to have a receipt stamped to the bag. Next, farmers can develop their own fertiliser. Finally, it’s also important to develop local fashion markets.

After visiting India, Leo decided to start the Sourcemap company and build tools to allow the crowdsourcing of source locations. Leo showed us amazing Google Earth flyover, which shows the mines and factories which lead to the production of a product.

Leo talked about one one use case in the domain of corporate social responsibility, to document the specific data to back up marketing claims. As soon as you have visibility into your supply chain, you start considering how to improve the chain. It also introduces the possibility of meeting the people that made the product; do consumers want to be stitched into the network, like Shop for Change?

Sourcemap works as a business because there is a competetive advantage to knowing your supply change and knowing your producers. There are two reasons for this: firstly, manufacturers want to reduce volatlity of sourcing. More importantly, sharing the supply change is a marketing advantage. For example, a company like TOMS Shoes is proud of its supply chain and buy-one-give-one giving program. They use Sourcemap to show it off.

Sourcemap allows you to include links, QR codes, and other information in marketing materials so the end consumer has a way to find out the sources of the goods they have purchased. Users have grown to include researchers and companies have discovered maps built for their own products by their own customers.

Since Leo created this technology, there has been growing demand for and regulations requiring supply chain visibility. The SEC started cracking down on greenwashing claims, where companies would exaggerate the environmental benefits of their products to boost sales in an increasingly eco-conscious marketplace. Supply chain tracking can illustrate carbon footprints, ingredient quality, water footprint, eco-labeling, the presence of forced labor, and conflict minerals. More recently, Office Depot has been using SourceMap to show off its supply chain for recycled paper.

How could this help? Leo thinks that the first step is to create transparency, and provide a competitive advantage for companies that release the information. Then, in a second step, you could differentiate products based on the nature of their supply chain.

The mere act of trying to find out where parts start can shake things up. “You don’t know how many calls I’ve been on where a buyer and a seller have never spoken before,” Leo says. Traditional supply-chain mangement software just links the vendor and consumer, but SourceMap is trying to flesh out the rest of that network, including raw materials, processing, manufacturing, distribution, and consumers.

The latest version of Sourcemap is a collaborative touchscreen technology which allows a group of executives in a room to map out the supply chain together, playing with spatial relations between all the stakeholders and using data to imagine new, improved supply chains.

Another current example of the importance of supply chains is that of chocolate. Seventy percent of the chocolate the world consumes comes from subsistence farming in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. Several climate models predict a dire future for this region’s agricultural ability to continue growing cocoa on a timescale of only a few decades. A cocoa tree takes about ten years to grow and come online. Knowing this, we can (and should) adjust accordingly.

Leo concludes that supply chains are the backbone of globalization, and the right to know where things come from is the right to survive for many people around the world.

Quick hits from the Q&A:

Supply chains are some of the most closely-held secrets in the corporate world (Leo thanks the Berkman Center for their legal support). The result is that the average person is shocked to see these maps for the first time. That won’t last, he says, and SourceMap hopes to educate us about where things come from.

Leo describes their role as just sharing this information. SourceMap doesn’t judge or compare between products.

Sasha asks about the socially responsible investment (SRI) community, and whether SourceMap could work with them to make supply chain awareness the norm rather than the exception. Leo responds that verification is in a tricky place right now, and that some of the people in the business of verifying sources are the ones keeping this information a secret. The basic datastructure of Sourcemap is a part number and a GPS coordinate. Leo is hoping that this structure will be widely adopted.

Leo argues that to effectively map out and verify supply chains, you can’t do it in an entirely centralized manner (it needs to be democratic). Ethan challenges that once these transparency systems are set up, contribution levels off, arguing that centralization does work in this arena. Leo counters that in the case of an apparel company with 300,000 suppliers, those suppliers change rapidly. Maybe some industries could map out the supply chain together if they cooperate, but it’s just not possible to scale the audit.

Sasha asks if we can develop games and move into the more “normative” territory, and Leo brings up “Source Quest.”

The early adopters are the companies that know their sources well, or at least those who are expected to know their sources. Food, apparel, and luxury goods, like Apple products. And then anyone who does fair trade, as well as the pharmaceutical industry.

SourceMap now offers a Pro account ($99 a year) to companies interested in password-protected maps, branded channels (, and enhanced API access. There’s tremendous value for companies to know the source of their raw materials, and they’re already spending tremendous amounts of money to find out, but they aren’t always doing this in a systematic way.

In addition to flushing out your own source map, SourceMap creates a social network of suppliers. The challenge to companies is not just to know their own supply chain, but also that of every supplier in it. Companies are realizing that the value of sharing the burden of auditing common suppliers outweighs the value of maintaining secrecy, since the ‘wheremade’ information is generally common knowledge amongst competitors. The specific cost of specific materials from known suppliers is the real secret sauce.

Asked about contributing to the database, Leo shares that Vancouver-based Foodtree is one example of a community that contributes information back to SourceMap, with hundreds of additions a day.

Ethan shares his hope that SourceMap gets acquired by SAP for billions of dollars and then gets integrated into existing corporate software, where it gets used not just by the leisure brands, socially responsible companies, and industries under pressure, but also the many other corporate entities that never consider where things come from.