Can I use the power law distribution predict where an egg came from?

One of the core questions I need to answer before I build my Source app is whether tracing source-countries rather than supply chains is an accurate way to guess where a given object came from. 

This is a novel approach. Most of the other folks working on global supply chains focus on corporate transparency (see CA SB-657-mandated’s, because those supply chains are hella opaque. But given that they are currently so opaque, I wondered if I could use source country as a proxy.

The idea came from Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody where he dedicate serious page-time to the concept that social media content production is guided by the power law. This means that on a given social network, the top 10% of users will produce the 90% of content. That’s the spike in the power law graph. The second and just-as-important piece is the long-tail–that 90% of users only produce 10% of content.

I wondered if globalization might make countries the same way, that the top 10% countries producing a given commodity would represent 90% of the production of that commodity. If that were true, then for coding the Source app, when someone searched for where an egg came from, I could design the system to respond with the top 6 egg-producing countries and have a certain level of confidence that the user’s egg came from one of those countries.

Today I got started seeing if that was true, roughly. There are always going to be exigencies–high tariffs might make it so some countries only eat eggs laid domestically or Free Trade Agreements mean all people in one country only eat eggs from another–but right now I’m interested in averages.

Below is a video explaining my research using the UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s commodity data:

The take away is that for the dozen-or-so commodities I tried out before and after making this video, the power law fit pretty well. There were fascinating outliers–most Arab countries produce dates and nearly no one but the U.S. and Canada produce cranberries–but most of the commodities I explored reflected the power law distribution.

This makes sense. Globalization is about consolidating markets, letting countries specialize (sometimes to the point of endangering their national interests). Most markets tend to grow a few sky-scrapers and then miles of suburbia around them. And that trend could help support using this model in the Source app.

I have more playing to do. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service shares some mouth-watering datasets that I can use to fact-check the UN rankings, and I’ve not even gotten into industrial materials like steel or coltan.

But it was a good evening snorkeling in global economic datasets.

Inspirational Quote:

“We live in such a service-based, globalised economy where very few people actually make anything and the people who do make stuff… it’s all part of a massive global supply chain. So what if all those chains were suddenly cut, how would you make something? How would you keep people alive? And that was something I wanted to explore.”–Max Brooks

Get in touch

%d bloggers like this: