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Mapping global supply chains

09.13.2013
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What started out as a university project has been turned into a free online resource to document and display how supply chains operate in major cities around the world.

Researchers at MIT’s Megacities Logistics Lab have been gathering data on supply chains in Mexico City, Rio, Beijing, Sao Paulo, Kuala Lumpar, Madrid and Santiago, with the data recently displayed in map form.

The data was originally collected because the Center found that many things we take for granted didn’t exist in rapidly growing cities around the world, and that understanding the supply chains required to support these populations was crucial.

“All the models we have tried using for logistics [based on experience in the industrialized world] were not applicable,” Director of the Center, Edgar Blanco said. “We need to learn more about the logistics in megacities, mostly because they represent the future of urbanization.”

Using map based technology allowed the researchers to plot data as and when it was collected.  So for instance, whenever a delivery was made, they could note the time, how long they were parked and any traffic disruption it caused.

The aim is to offer this crucial data to town planners, who often lack information on how business is done in their city.

Planners tend to focus on essential needs such as plumbing and sewer systems, “but they don’t think about how goods need to move to the cities,” Blanco says. “Once they reach a certain size, there can be chaos.”

“We not only have to design better logistics systems in the cities, we need cities that are designed better for logistics,” he adds.

The data is not only likely to be useful for developing cities.  In London for instance there are calls for heavy goods vehicles to be banned after a number of accidents involving them and cyclists.  This kind of data would reveal the impact this could have.

The researchers hope that as the dataset increases in size, officials will be able to use data from cities of comparable features, so for instance, what works in Mumbai may also work in Mexico City.

The system is open to all comers, so you don’t need to be part of the research team in order to contribute.  The hope is that this will significantly improve the amount of data in the system, thus improving its usefulness.

As the information builds, supply chains might improve as businesses gain the ability to plan according to the real conditions in each city. For example, Blanco says, in North America only about 5 percent of the cost of goods is attributable to transportation costs, on average, but in Latin America that figure is as high as 25 percent. Improving the efficiency of supply chains could cut the cost of consumer goods, improving the standard of living.

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