'Google Maps for food systems': New dashboard aims to aid decision-making

Fruits and vegetables at a market. Photo by: freeimage4life

WASHINGTON — A new online data hub intended to help countries make more informed food policy decisions aggregates data from different aspects of the food system — from supply chains to individual diets — to provide a fuller picture of whether and how people around the world access the nutritious foods they need.

Opinion: A food data revolution in the COVID-19 era

Food data are not deemed essential — until they are, when hunger surges, food prices skyrocket, and we see panic turn into violence. By then, it is too late. This op-ed looks at how access to data could help transform food systems.

The Food Systems Dashboard, which covers 230 countries, was launched last week by a consortium of organizations led by Johns Hopkins University, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, and the Food and Agriculture Organization. It uses 171 indicators to show national and regional trends in food systems including crop yield, relative caloric prices, presence of markets, fruit and vegetable consumption, stunting rates, and population growth.

The dashboard presents data from many different aspects of the food system. Photo by: Food Systems Dashboard

“With the kinds of data we have in the dashboard, we really stand a chance at transforming food systems. Without that data, we’re just flying blind,” said GAIN Executive Director Lawrence Haddad at the public launch of the project Friday.

“It begins to zero down on where you might have to act,” he added. “I think it’s a way of helping navigate this complex space. I like to think of it as Google Maps for food systems.”

Haddad said the desire to create the dashboard grew out of work on the 2015 “Global Nutrition Report,” when data was “all over the place” and food systems were not working the way they should — but there was no clear way to determine which pieces were broken in which places. Constructing the dashboard required the assembly and quality screening of enormous datasets and making them user-friendly, he said.

The dashboard breaks down data from different pieces of the food system into six areas of focus: food supply chains, food environments, individual factors, consumer behavior, diets and nutrition, and drivers. Those areas are then broken down further into subgroups.

The dashboard can break down data on a country, regional, and global basis. Photo by: Food Systems Dashboard

FAO Chief Economist Maximo Torero said current hunger and nutrition metrics — unhealthy diets contribute to 11 million deaths per year, and more than 2 billion adults are overweight or obsese — show that the world has a long way to go to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Disruptions caused by COVID-19 — including lost livelihoods, reduced access to nutritious food, suspension of critical health activities, and increased food waste — have created additional challenges to the food system.

“At FAO, we are convinced that food systems information is at the heart of the present-day global nutrition challenges. This is because food systems are universal. Everyone must eat, and so they connect people everywhere in a complex economic, social, and environmental way,” Torero said.

“The Food Systems Dashboard, with its comprehensive repository of relevant data and information on nutrition and food systems, can enable FAO in supporting its members in knowing the status of their food systems,” Torero added.

Data in the system comes from 35 sources, including dynamic ones such as the FAOSTAT, which will allow the Food Systems Dashboard to automatically update with new data as FAO adds to its system. Other data, some of which had to be extracted from PDFs or other nondynamic sources, comes from places such as the World Bank, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Development Programme, the Global Fortification Data Exchange, the “Global Nutrition Report,” and national labor force surveys. New data will be added when this year’s “State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World” report is released in July.

“With the kinds of data we have in the dashboard, we really stand a chance at transforming food systems. Without that data, we’re just flying blind.”

— Lawrence Haddad, executive director, GAIN

Creators acknowledged the limitations of data in the dashboard, including indicators measuring consumer behavior, which are some of the most difficult to gather. It is hard to know exactly how people store and prepare food once it is purchased, they said, and that information is needed to provide a better picture of what foods people consume. This is one of the areas that researchers hope to be able to better understand as the project continues.

Another gap is the availability of subnational data. The 2020 “Global Nutrition Report” demonstrated that inequality in food systems within a country or community can be masked by national-level data, and policy change can often come on a more local level.

Jessica Fanzo, director of the Johns Hopkins Global Food Ethics and Policy Program, said researchers want to partner with countries to pilot the dashboard — Tanzania and Senegal have already expressed interest — so they can get feedback on its utility in decision-making. They also want to gather and add other datasets that governments may have.

“What are governments willing to share and put on a global open access dashboard, and how can we ensure that that data is of good quality?” Fanzo asked. “[Food systems] are global, they’re regional, they're national, and they’re very micro. … Subnational data would be incredibly useful, particularly for policymaking decisions.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.