Social Impact Internships: Cher Jiang (’23)
“Efficiency” as an engineer would define it might mean high output relative to the input–high current through a solar panel given modest sunlight, for example. An investor might define “efficiency” as high income compared to the low cost of attaining that income–captured through a customer acquisition cost metric. An economist would say “efficiency” is the optimal allocation of scarce resources, achieved when participants in an economy are all free to contribute to the decisions of what is produced, either by acting as suppliers or by voting with their dollars.
Having already completed half of my college education studying Business Analytics (Course 15-2), I began the summer still believing that sustainability is a worthwhile goal, but it is counter to any plausible definition of efficiency. Being “sustainable” held the image of spending extravagant amounts of money on education campaigns that would lecture the public on wasteful consumer habits. In turn, most people would continue to resist being told that they shouldn’t buy meat as frequently as they wish, that they shouldn’t look forward to purchasing another new outfit, that they shouldn’t be content with floating through life, bringing home a new plastic bottle every time they need a shampoo refill. Sustainability to me meant extra effort that might build a better future but which wears us down given our present desires.
This summer, I have had the good fortune of being matched as a Data Science intern with Replate. My role within this food-rescuing nonprofit has focused on implementing a new BI tool: using Tableau, I piece together database information as well as metrics gathered from other data-capturing software (for tracking sales process, invoicing, payment of food rescuers, etc.) to visualize trends. While not too technically challenging, the value of the project lies in automating repetitive data inquiries needed by Replate and allowing the Data Department to spend time on more advanced, prescriptive projects. Storytelling through the Tableau dashboards also demands a solid understanding of what Replate’s mission truly is.
The duality of the Replate mission is what constructed the positive link between sustainability and efficiency for me. The moment of perspective shift began in my first week at Replate, when I spoke with a member of the Engineering team. She explained the setup of Replate’s food donation scheduling website where companies with excess food could pay for the food to be picked up and re-distributed. She commented that, of course, website users would ideally stop using Replate. During the brief pause I took to contemplate why it would be ideal for Replate to lose its customers, I realized something that changed my perspective on what it takes to fight hunger.
Replate in fact emphasizes its food waste-fighting mission more so than its mission to fight hunger, which it accomplishes in the process of driving excess food to distribution centers. This does not mean that Replate views feeding people as less important than preventing CO2 emissions or slowing the accumulation in landfills. Rather, reducing food waste is an indispensable step when it comes to fighting hunger on a large scale, not an auxiliary goal. What is wasted food but a faulty judgement that results in pain to both sides of the issue–the pain of wasting resources to secure food that has expired in utility for the buyer and the pang of hunger for those disadvantaged from this distribution plan? And while receiving another party’s excess is better than facing down hunger, those who depend on donations are denied the ability to choose exactly which food to consume. This also presents inefficiency because less than the whole of society is weighing in on the economic questions of what food suppliers should produce.
This big picture idea about how sustainability is a bedrock of efficiency was built from small details. I picked up on a comment by the engineer, and I continued piecing together the truth of this concept through my daily work in visualizing impact metrics for Replate, where tracking the movement of pounds of food is central to many calculations.
I have been grateful to realize this perspective shift in my work through simply processing data and through speaking with those who support operations–and I will nurture a curiosity to confirm this belief if I may one day encounter the populations served by Replate directly in the field.