The Power of FEWSION

As Hurricane Harvey pounded Houston, news commentators warned the disaster would raise gas prices across the country.

Ben Ruddell begged to differ. He knew that while residents of Chicago, Louisville, and Tulsa would see price spikes, he and his fellow citizens in Flagstaff, Ariz., would see little, if any, increase.

Ruddell directs a project at Northern Arizona University that collects data from sources such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Energy Information Administration to create a map of the nation’s complex food, energy, and water supply chains.

Called FEWSION, the project was made possible when the National Science Foundation awarded Ruddell and his team $3 million, the agency’s largest grant thus far to researchers exploring the topic.

“Emergency managers spend most of their time thinking about their supplies of food, energy, and water in a disaster,” said Ruddell, a 2002 graduate of Calvin College.

“Our maps will help them understand much better than before how distant events could affect them and whether they need to make changes before disasters happen.”

Because the project is funded by tax dollars, the public will have access to FEWSION’s data. By this winter, Ruddell plans to have online a visualization system that will allow people anywhere in the country to see how their cities are supplied with food, energy, and water, as well as commodities like forest products, textiles, and electronics.

“There’s a lot of interesting data,” Ruddell said, “and now we have a plan to make that data actionable in local communities.”

The plan is a citizen-science extension of the project called PLACE4FEWS. “We’ll train people to do some sleuthing and find out who makes the decisions in their communities about where their food, energy, and water come from,” said Ruddell.

“When they meet real people who make these systems work and get them involved, there’s the possibility to effect change.”

He added, “Calvin alumni are the most likely people to take the lead on this next step of supply-chain management.”

For more on FEWSION, including its citizen-science project, visit fewsion.us/education.

About the Author

Gayle Boss is a freelance writer living in Grand Rapids, Mich., where she is a member of Monroe Community Church.

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