According to the UNs' Food and Agriculture Organization, residents of the US Virgin Islands import more than 97% of their food. Nutritional content is not what it could be farmed locally and sometimes transported food arrives rotten or cannot arrive at all when container ships can't get into port during seasonal storms. Food quality and shortage is a constant threat.
Dr. Joanne Luciano, a distinguished Professor of Data Science, at the University of the Virgin Islands, is piloting a project called “The Emerald Archipelago Supply Chain Use Case”. Her team seeks to significantly increase community access to locally farmed foods by implementing supply chain solutions built on blockchain.
When actualized, this blockchain for good project can decrease dependency on food import while reducing cost and increasing value for residents and visitors.
Lauren Weymouth (00:00):
Hello, All About Blockchain listeners. This is your host Lauren Weymouth, coming back to you after a winter break. And during that time off, we have seen one of the major use cases of blockchain cryptocurrency start to really go through the roof. More institutional investors have been pouring money in, we hear names like Elon Musk, making large investments, Twitter making declarations that they're going to hold Bitcoin on their balance sheet and we've also seen more stores and companies start to accept cryptocurrency as payment like AT&T and Microsoft, Burger King and Pizza Hut in Venezuela and Pizza Hut and KFC in Canada.
But this is one use case of blockchain, a good use case, the holding value, a store value, but there are many other use cases being developed. And this is what All About Blockchain is all about. We're listening to our fellow scholars, our academics talk about what they're developing, and what they're researching and what's going to work in different industries using blockchain technology.
And today, I have the pleasure of introducing Dr. Joanne Luciano, a distinguished professor of data science at the University of the Virgin Islands. Joanne is an experienced technology consultant to industry. Joanne, welcome.
Joanne Luciano (01:19):
Thank you. It's wonderful to be here.
Lauren Weymouth (01:22):
So, Joanne, you are a fellow New Yorker, you are a data science person, tech person. And you're here to share with us why you took the opportunity to learn blockchain and empower enable others on your campus to understand. I became interested in your work after hearing you present at the National HBCU blockchain Research and Innovation conference this past November. I became interested in your work after hearing you present at the National HBCU blockchain Research and Innovation conference this past November.
Joanne Luciano (01:55):
I honestly don't remember. I'm not new to technology and new technologies as you know are emerging all the time. I don't recall the first time I heard about blockchain. And in coming to the University of the Virgin Islands, and being focused on setting up a data science community in a data drought area, it's been a challenge, I was pretty focused on that.
It wasn't until I was approached by Morgan State University, in their outreach to all the HBCUs that I really started considering putting it on my radar, because there are tons of technologies that you have to stay focused sometimes.
For those of you who aren't aware, HBCUs are historically black colleges and universities. There are about 100 of them, I think actually 107 in the United States, and the University of the Virgin Islands is one of them.
Lauren Weymouth (02:48):
Morgan State turned you on to wanting to know more about it. And what were your methods? How did you go about learning more about blockchain?
Joanne Luciano (02:55):
Morgan State had a summit, they had the first inaugural blockchain summit. And they invited all the HBCUs to come and learn about blockchain. And so I went to Maryland, to MSU to hear about it. And it was during that three days, I was able to bring a student with me that I realized that this is something I really need to pay attention to, and to bring into my curriculum. And it had to do with creating opportunities for the minority groups. I do have a long history in high tech from my 20s, in the Boston area.
And one of the arguments that was made was that this emerging technology, blockchain was now at a point where it was getting serious attention, it has gone past the infancy stage would it be able to walk as it passed the crawling stage, and I thought about my career and my history, and realizing that if students were educated in blockchain technology and went to startup companies, even if those initial companies failed, they would be in a different world and in a different place and have opportunities that they would have never had been before. So I started to think about that, and some of the use cases that were mentioned at that summit follow the incentives, and build some materials to bring into my class. And one of the things that happened was the student that I brought had two friends of his who are UVI alums, UVI is the University of the Virgin Islands, so they were alums. And they had been filling his ear with blockchain for a couple of years. And so when we came back from the conference, they wanted to meet me. And, of course, I wanted to meet them. And they became collaborators on the project that we're about to talk about.
Lauren Weymouth (04:46):
Okay. So you started incorporating to your teaching, how did that go? How's that going?
Joanne Luciano (04:52):
I've been able to bring it into a few modules into the classroom. We've had a data science and blockchain club. But it's a small island. It's a tourist-driven economy here and not a technology-driven economy. And we're trying to change some of that. So, it's slow going. We have incredible students, but we have few numbers of incredible students.
Lauren Weymouth (05:12):
It sounds like from what you were talking about, it's a contagious field. You met up with other professors in schools and realized the importance of it, your student who got excited to come to the conference with you had other friends who were trying to fill his ears with why this technology is meaningful. And maybe you can tell us about the Emerald archipelago supply chain use case, what you've been working on?
Joanne Luciano (09:09):
Sure. So, we're an island. And we get 98% of our food imported on containerships. So, if I'm in the supermarket, or a grocery or even the premier shops, it's about 10 days to 14 days from harvest to shelf. And by that time, the nutritional content has diminished completely. In addition, we're prone to hurricanes here in the Virgin Islands. When a disaster happens, ships can't even come in with the food. So we're really and by the time it does come in, it's rotten. There's a real challenge here with food security, and fresh and nutritious food. we really need to build the local farming community, we can better distribute the food that we do have locally so that people can eat fair better during the current hurricanes, especially our elderly population, which is very vulnerable here. We can do a better job at distribution so that the food gets consumed while it's fresh, rather than it rotting and not knowing how to get resources from one place to another. As part of the hazard mitigation and resiliency plan, and the territory is in the process of completing the plan for the next five years. One of the people that came to the project is a local entrepreneur and he had a previous business where he engaged with a lot of the local farmers and saw that what was needed was a simple way to both aggregate the produce as well as to enable the marketplace so that the groceries could have access and the restaurants could have access to the local produce. And that's where it started. And then we had another team member who's a micro farmer, so it actually started with this grocer and supply chain from grocers and restaurants concept. And then the micro-farming community came in as part of the hazard mitigation and resilience planning. Like if you're going to be self-sufficient and supporting yourself with food, you can't discount the micro farmers that are on the island. And so, our initial study reached out to a number of micro farmers to try to collect data on who's producing what so that we could then aggregate the data.
Lauren Weymouth (08:10):
When you say micro farmers, what are the crops that they're producing locally?
Joanne Luciano (08:13):
We produce locally avocados, mangoes, guava, watercress, kale and spinach. I'm focusing on greens because, since the start of this project, I've been able to start a garden. And now I have my own tomatoes and broccoli and beans. Bok choy. Lots of herbs. Spinach, parsley, thyme. Yeah, there's a lot here.
Lauren Weymouth (08:39):
And I don't know why, I'm also imagining coconuts.
Joanne Luciano (08:42):
Yeah, definitely. And coconut water is a big thing. You can actually buy it by the gallon or by the coconut, and they can just slice it off for you and you can have a drink at the market. That's great. Cucumbers.
Lauren Weymouth (08:55):
So now that you're endeavoring in your own micro gardening, are you going to walk the walk and join the network using these new protocols that you're setting up?
Joanne Luciano (09:03):
Well, I actually, I did fill out the survey, when I started my garden, which was just in pots, and the survey is open. And any Virgin Islanders, if you happen to be listening to this, you continue to add to the survey, we're building the database of the micro farmers that are on but at the time, I had just a few plants and pots. And now I have a plot that's about six feet wide, and about 20, 25 feet long, I've got tons of tomatoes coming in, I've got a lot of greens. And I will have to update my survey. I do plan on not just feeding myself, but I live on a property that's about two acres, and we're going to try to turn more of this into farming land. I've got the neighbor's kids fully engaged with the garden, and I've given them some plants. And we're about to re-pot our second crop of tomatoes. We've got the grandchildren of the plants. So, I guess as a result of this project, I have gotten more engaged with a local farming community and with building that community and the food availability on the island.
Lauren Weymouth (10:15):
So Joanne, with the travel ban lifts due to the pandemic, can I fly over and have dinner with you eating your fresh grown produce?
Joanne Luciano (10:23):
Absolutely. Without question, I look forward to it.
Lauren Weymouth (10:27):
This is great. At first when I was thinking about our discussion, I was thinking about the farmers. But now, I really see that this is impacting the supply chain, the distributors, the grocery stores, and then all the people who could be without food if there isn't enough supply of it, and the tourists who are coming in and expect these buffets at their hotels. It affects everyone.
Joanne Luciano (10:50):
That's right. The mission has been to engage the technology to help the community in the problem of food security, and to help the health and the well being of the Virgin Islanders to have access to good nutritious produce and to create a market that scales and that's trusted.
Lauren Weymouth (11:11):
So, how does blockchain solve for this challenge?
Joanne Luciano (11:13):
We see smart contracts as the way of simplifying the process for the farmers. That's really at the heart of it.
Lauren Weymouth (11:19):
Say more about that. So for someone that doesn't know what a smart contract is, how does that work?
Joanne Luciano (11:24):
By the nature of the smart contract, the way that it's set up, with the third party built into it, and the decentralization, the terms are guaranteed once they're included into the smart contract.
Lauren Weymouth (11:39):
So what I'm hearing is that this protocol will execute a legal document that has trust built-in and transparency. It's automated. What else can we count on from this?
Joanne Luciano (11:51):
Once the smart contract is put together, it's there for everybody to see on the blockchain. Not that parts of it can't be encrypted, but it can't be adjusted, it can't be mutated, it can't be hacked with. The terms are guaranteed, and the escrows are put in place so that the terms are fulfilled for the parties involved.
Lauren Weymouth (11:13):
Got it. So these agreements that are contained and they exist across a distributed decentralized blockchain network. And everyone must agree upon it, because it's almost like locked in, it's built-in.
Joanne Luciano (12:25):
It's built-in to the system. Yeah, it took me a while to figure that out. There were pieces that were missing for me. And I realized once you put something on the blockchain, that's it. It's done. So in other contracts, you could disappear, if you will but you can't. The terms and the technology are built-in. So any funds are allocated at the outset so that if the delivery doesn't take place, the person who's expecting the delivery doesn't lose out.
What we can do is we can create, using the blockchain technology, a simple app for farmers that will allow them to put their produce on when it becomes available, what they expect. It will allow them to plan better by seeing what kinds of produce the restaurants or the grocers might want, what the demand is, so we'll help manage that whole thing and everyone will be able to see through an app the actual status of the contract fulfillment as it's working its way through the supply chain.
Lauren Weymouth (13:28):
That's amazing. So it's real-time?
Joanne Luciano (13:30):
It's real-time. Yeah. And it's simplified, they don't need to do any big deal legal mumbo jumbo that nobody will understand. And it doesn't really have any meaning because if somebody doesn't fulfill their part of the contract, then you have to go chase them down. And that is not as time-consuming and many times not even possible to do.
Lauren Weymouth (13:52):
Yeah, it's not efficient. All right, so who do you need to partner with to make this project go from pilot to prototype? What's the next steps?
Joanne Luciano (13:59):
We're actually just in the process of reconvening to figure out exactly what our next steps are. We had our first meeting post-winter break, the other morning. We'll be reconvening in the next couple of days to talk about the new opportunities that are on the horizon. We're figuring out our next steps.
Lauren Weymouth (14:17):
Do you have student helpers?
Joanne Luciano (14:19):
Yes. There's one student who was part of the initial project who came on towards the end of it, who was in my data science class and somehow overheard a conversation and has a background, he's a local Virgin Islanders and has a background in farming. And he's totally on board with this. He has a deep interest in farming and knows a lot. He's like one of my little farming consultants now that I have a garden. He just started programming last semester, when he took my data science class, and now he's the teaching assistant for the course. And he's very interested in continuing the project and learning more about how it can impact the farming industry, as well as the technology. He's very excited about the technology.
Lauren Weymouth (14:59):
Look what an opportunity this is providing to him. He gets to be at the forefront of a new project that's going to change lives and make a really big difference, not just locally, but if this works, it could impact using smart contracts for supply chain in farming could impact all farming regions.
Joanne Luciano (15:17):
I have a class of data science students now that are just learning about data. And I anticipate that once they get wind of this when we get to this part in the course because we're still just talking about what data is and where it comes from. That they will be pretty excited about not only the technology but also the opportunity. And this class is an introductory level classes. I don't know if any of its kind really that introduce data science at the university level to undergraduates that are basically sophomores and don't have any experience yet in statistics and in programming. So we teach them some Python and we teach them math and statistics that they need to know and walk them through the data science workflow. This semester, we have nine students. For the first time in my career, we have eight females and one male, less semester it was flipped. I'm extremely excited. We have some business majors, accounting majors, some physics and computer science, we've got a lot multi-disciplinary course. And it's just exciting to be engaging with these young women. And what's interesting is one male student is taking the class online. So he watches the video of the class and submits videos to the class. But while I'm meeting, it's just all female, which is completely new in my career. So that's kind of cool.
Lauren Weymouth (16:40):
Well, it's so great to hear a project of this importance at the very early stages. And you're, at the same time, educating the population that will probably end up being your team on this and gathering your resources, and putting all the pieces in place. We hear about projects at all different stages. And it's nice for our listeners to understand what it takes to actually get stuff launched. You recently told me a story about your lightbulb moment of when you really truly got the impact the blockchain technology could have on different aspects in different industries. Can you share the story with our listeners of when you first had your light bulb go off on what blockchain really could do?
Joanne Luciano (17:20):
Well, one of them I mentioned earlier, which was when I realized how important it would be to get students trained in this technology so that they could have really fulfilling careers whether the particular company made it or not. In terms of the actual technology itself, it didn't really occur until, I will admit, after our pilot project, I could see all the pieces but I didn't have that aha moment when Sean who's the blockchain evangelist and wants to lead us to the fourth industrial revolution, he and I were relaxing, having dinner. And I'm like, "Okay, Sean, so tell me, I don't really understand what the real so what about this is." And we went back and forth several times. And for me, it was the moment where I realized that it was the trust issue, it was the trust being built into the system, which is always saying it's a trustless system. So that never made sense to my logical brain. So what I realized is that just even somebody... I have a saying, getting things in writing, if someone is willing to put it in writing, then you can do business with them. It's only when people don't want to put things in writing that you have to be concerned about it. So, if people are willing to put things on the blockchain, that tells you a lot about their trust business, and the integrity is built-in. So it was that confusion over trustless where trust and an escrow was built into the system. And that's what the aha moment was, for me. It was like, "oh, once it's in a smart contract on the blockchain, it's good to go." And that was a big moment for me and I was going around thinking just the same mistake we made with the Semantic Web, which was trying to explain the technology. And people keep trying to explain the technology of blockchain, and it's really what it delivers that is so important.
Lauren Weymouth (19:28):
That's awesome. That's a really good share. You see blockchain impacting your campus, how it's really going to create all kinds of opportunities for your students. How do you see blockchain industry evolving or continuing to mature over the next five years?
Joanne Luciano (19:44):
Well, as more and more applications get developed, like anything else, it will get more and more into the mainstream. So it won't become this kind of like, What are they talking about? More people will be used to the term, if I go into PayPal, it allows me to play with cryptocurrencies. So it will become more and more of a household word and more and more contracts will be developed in this way and will become part of the fourth industrial revolution.
Lauren Weymouth (20:09):
Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. We constantly hear about how it's about utility, what different applications are being built, what is being used, and how it's being exercised in different industries, with different groups.
Joanne Luciano (20:24):
I remember back when the World Wide Web started, we did not see www on everything. And I remember there was one day where I saw, and I don't eat white bread, typically. But I saw on this wonder bread loaf on www.wonderbread.com. So, I've watched technology emerge. When I started with computing, I was on punch cards. We've come a long way since then. The smartphones that we carry around took up the size of a room.
Lauren Weymouth (20:59):
What's a punch card? I'm just kidding.
Joanne Luciano (21:03):
Okay. I met Grace Hopper, multiple of the times.
Lauren Weymouth (20:08):
Joanne Luciano (20:09):
It's amazing. It's really amazing.
Lauren Weymouth (21:12):
Yeah, I was just going to say, you came in at the perfect time on that. I was going to ask, where do you want to send people to find out more information about this project and your work?
Joanne Luciano (20:17):
We have a website, it's eagroup.io, where you can go for further information. We posted our videos of our community engagement as well as our report out on the first phase of the project. There, you can also learn about the next phases of the project.
Lauren Weymouth (21:34):
Joanne, you've really made me think about and highlighted to us how important the basic right of nutritious food is and how important it is in our daily lives. And when you don't have it, what a big deal that can be. And it's been great to learn that blockchain technology can make a difference in your island community and others as well. Thank you so much for taking your time today to be with us. I know how busy you are with teaching and research and grant writing. We've really appreciated hearing from you.
Joanne Luciano (22:03):
Lauren, it's been my pleasure. I want to thank you for the opportunity to tell you what we're doing here with blockchain technology. We're very excited about it. And I really appreciate this opportunity to come and speak to you today.
Lauren Weymouth (22:14):
I enjoyed our conversation and having you on All About Blockchain. And listeners, thank you for exploring with us. If you have any questions about this episode, or any feedback for new episodes, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org, until next time.