Bill Johnson, Carpe Geo Evangelist, AppGeo
I’ve believed for a long time that if you want to take the measure of a person’s character, one of the best places to look is how they volunteer their time. Do they lead a Scout troop or coach their kid’s sports team? Are they active in social justice causes or political campaigns? Do they show up on “clean-up day” to rake up the leaves at their place of worship? Do they take on the thankless job of treasurer for their local historical society? These examples, and countless others, are indicators of commitments to spend that most precious commodity: time.
I see time as the great equalizer. It’s just about the only thing I can think of that we all get equally. It doesn’t ebb and flow, it only flows. We can’t save it up or give it away. We can’t bargain for more. We all own our time in full and every day we make choices about how to spend it down. Those choices reveal a lot about us.
I especially admire people who volunteer their time in service to those in need who are less fortunate and less able to sustain themselves. Food pantries are a wonderful example of that. All of us need food every day, but there are plenty of people who struggle to meet this basic and unrelenting need. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this problem especially dire for vulnerable seniors who cannot risk exposure by venturing out to procure their basic necessities, as well as people quarantined by the virus. Food pantries are not new, but one of the under-reported stories of the pandemic is that they are facing unprecedented demand and many of them are operating under severe strain. Even more, many food pantries have had to shift to or expand their current home delivery capacity, in response to the inconvenience and danger of bringing people together at pickup locations. This requires more logistics (routing) and help (drivers). There was an article in my local Albany newspaper about this and it got me thinking about something close to home at AppGeo.
As the pandemic was unfolding, AppGeo President Rich Grady challenged everyone in the company to think about ways that we could help. There were lots of ideas about creating mapping tools to help track the pandemic, but many other organizations were already doing that. It was also clear that there were new economic impacts from the pandemic and that with many people isolated and out of work, there would be new levels of food insecurity. The idea emerged of creating a tool to help non-profits, especially food pantries, improve the efficiency of their food deliveries. This idea meshed perfectly with our interest in helping local communities where we live and work deal with a real need. Delivery optimization is a classic geoanalytics problem to determine the most efficient delivery routes with multiple stops, something that large package delivery companies perform day-in and day-out. Unfortunately, sophisticated tools like this are generally out of reach for small non-profits operating on thread-bare budgets.
AppGeo is a Google business partner and we were aware that Google X, their R&D arm, has been pursuing technology solutions to help solve world hunger. Google offered free credits to their partners to support non-profit organizations dealing with the impact of COVID-19, and we chose to use their GMP tools in our efforts to help food pantries. A small internal project team was assembled to iterate daily and the new Bringfood application came together quickly, in just about two months. The solution involves a few key steps, all familiar to those of us in the geospatial discipline:
- Get stakeholder input on their needs
- Geocode all of the addresses where deliveries will be needed so that all of the delivery stops are “on the map”.
- Perform spatial clustering to create groupings of stops located near each other. Bringfood keeps the clusters at 25 stops or less, which aligns well with how food pantries generally assign deliveries to their drivers.
- Run the optimization algorithm to create the most efficient delivery route for all of the stops within each cluster.
- Create a web-based output map and delivery list for each cluster that makes it easy for the driver to follow the optimum route and make the deliveries.
One of the several people on the internal Bringfood team, Priya Sankalia, lives in Arlington MA, in the Boston suburbs, and had a connection with the local food pantry there, Arlington EATS, so the team was able to quickly gain a better understanding of the use case and have a place to test out the application. What they learned is that food pantries were relying on lists in spreadsheets that they handed to their drivers after some manual “eyeballing” to generate what they thought would be reasonable delivery groupings. Even though there were varying degrees of automation, the need for improved automation was confirmed in discussions held by the team with the United Way of Acton-Boxborough, the Neighborhood Brigade of Massachusetts, City Harvest of New York City, and the towns of Chelsea and Somerville — the old adage of “charity starts at home” comes to mind. These organizations were getting the job done, by heavily relying on local knowledge of the community and a quick, best-guess to sort the delivery lists and hand them to the volunteer drivers.
AppGeo’s Bringfood application is now available and is being used by a growing number of food pantries and other non-profits, totally for free. It’s a cloud-hosted web application, so there is nothing to install or manage. All that’s needed is an account that eligible organizations can request through the bringfood.care website.
I was not involved in any of the work that brought this idea to fruition, but I am proud to be part of a company committed to doing good things with technology and giving back to our society. As I’ve thought about the short journey between the initial idea and the completion of the Bringfood application, it occurs to me that this may be the best example of carpe geo yet. Carpe geo is about seizing opportunities and doing good things with GIS. You are probably aware that I have the unique job title of carpe geo evangelist and that I have been giving carpe geo keynote addresses at GIS conferences across the country with the aim of inspiring GIS professionals about the importance of their work and being willing to explore new ideas and new ways to solve the problems we face. This boils down to three simple words to make it easy to remember: seize | solve | share.
Bringfood is the perfect embodiment of carpe geo. It seizes a critical opportunity, it solves a real problem, and it is shared for free to those that need it. It also closes the loop on the sentiments I outlined at the start of this blog about the measure of a person’s character being connected with service to others. Everything and everyone in the Bringfood journey aligns with that. It allows us to help those committed to helping others.
To everyone involved in Bringfood, but especially Rich Grady for his leadership on this, and Priya Sankalia, Ross Topol, and Brian Coolidge, I say: “Thank you, I’m proud to be your colleague.”