Smart Predictions For The World’s Largest Berry Producer

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Brightly lit displays of strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries are often the first items to greet grocery store customers, tempting them with eye-catching colors and sun-kissed freshness.

What very few of us consider is the complex set of decisions—informed by predictive analysis—that is required for these highly perishable berries to reach their destinations in ripe, mouth-watering condition. Or the new breed of business analyst who supports the process.

Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry company, with around a third of the global market, has stayed on top of this competitive business by grounding its operations in a strong commitment to data and analysis.

Across a sprawling network of 750 independent growers in more than 20 countries, Driscoll’s tracks data on everything from the soil where fruit grows to the light and temperature levels inside refrigerated trucks that transport berries from fields to consumers.

“Data is becoming king, and the more data you have access to and can start to leverage, the better position you’re going to be in to make sure you’re making the right decisions,” says Adam Martinez, director of supply forecasting at Driscoll’s.

The New Analyst

The traditional business analyst—fluent in BI, spreadsheet-obsessed—is fast gaining a counterpart in today’s business circles. Behind the intricate supply chains and geographies that companies like Driscoll’s navigate is the rise of a new kind of analyst: one who can enhance data with location intelligence, generating insight that improves efficiency and drives strategy at the highest levels.

Ahna Miller, Driscoll’s platform manager for GIS (geographic information system) technology, embodies the newly evolving role of this modern business strategist. Miller and her fellow location analysts are giving managers and executives new ways to see trends and relationships across the business.  

At Driscoll’s, it all begins in the field. Every time a new crop of berries is planted, it is mapped and logged in GIS. Working under Martinez in the supply forecasting department, Miller builds on that data by  creating decision dashboards that fuse information from other departments. A dashboard might show the total acreage planted, a bar chart of forecast production for the coming week, and a map showing which berry varieties are growing where.

That information answers complicated questions about best farming practices and the timing of the supply chain. It also helps Driscoll’s predict outcomes with better accuracy and allows the company to be proactive on a number of fronts, from developing COVID-19 contingency plans to anticipating weather events.   

A natural problem-solver who thrives on collaboration, Miller was drawn to GIS for its ability to organize information about nearly any business scenario in compelling ways. “I can basically take any piece of data and as long as there’s some sort of location to it, I can turn it into a visualization that someone could be interested in.”

Her prowess as a new analyst comes in no small part from her facility with the tools of the trade.  “She’s truly passionate about GIS, just loves it—almost oozes it,” Martinez says.

The Education of a Problem-Solver

At age 8, Miller visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium and was transfixed by the baby otters playing in a water tank. Her mother, kneeling beside her, explained that if Ahna became a marine biologist one day, she could make it her job to work with animals like those.

From an early age, Miller’s parents inspired her interest in the natural world. She grew up in Temecula, California, playing outside and camping, and practicing homesteading techniques with her family like conserving water and growing a garden.

Her father, an iron worker, emphasized the importance of math. If she wanted to own horses one day, he said, she would need to know how to calculate a perimeter to build a fence. Her mother, who worked at an elementary school library, stressed the practicality of knowledge and advocated a hands-on approach to education. “She always had a good handle on [how] the best way you’re going to learn is really by doing,” Miller says.

When Miller enrolled at the University of California, Santa Barbara, she was part of the first generation of her family to attend college. She pursued an undergraduate degree in marine biology, but discovered an interest in GIS while assisting at a conference on ocean mapping. Adding a minor in GIS, she took classes from Michael Goodchild, one of the world’s leading geographers.

“He did this really amazing job of painting a picture of what GIS can do in the real world,” Miller says. “It became this huge tool of how to communicate things . . . in this very visual way.”

That opened her eyes to the predictive and analytical power of location technology, and set her on the path to becoming a new type of business analyst.

Her first internship out of school was at Reiter Affiliated, a berry grower and sister company to Driscoll’s, where Miller had to hit the ground running, learning on the job how to communicate the value of location data and intelligence. It was there that she began working with her mentor Michael Christensen, now Driscoll’s director of technical services in global research and development. He was impressed from the start by her technical acumen, but also by how she embodied the values—humility, passion, trustworthiness—that Driscoll’s hires for.

“She’s very empathetic in terms of understanding the users’ needs, and very much has this customer-driven mindset, a service mentality,” Christensen says. “She’s an avid learner and incredibly humble.”

After earning a master’s in GIS from Clark University, where she also picked up skills in coding, Miller had the opportunity to work at Driscoll’s with Christensen, standing up an enterprise GIS program at the berry giant. The company’s location intelligence program, internally named Atlas, began as a system to organize the vast acreage and network of growers under Driscoll’s purview. With Miller’s help, it would evolve into a vital tool for predictive analytics that would strengthen the company’s supply chain.

A Reliable Forecast for Each Location

Berries are highly sensitive to their location and surroundings—unique microclimates, air quality, and altitude are just a few of the variables that affect growth patterns. That’s why Miller and Atlas have become integral to Driscoll’s forecasting effort.

Most major meteorological corporations don’t provide forecasts with a high degree of confidence beyond 10 days, while Driscoll’s needs to anticipate supply 13 weeks out. As Miller tracks and analyzes growing conditions at specific locations across tens of thousands of acres—aided by data collectors in the field—she uses GIS technology to predict when crops will be ready, and in what amounts.

It’s the kind of business challenge the new analyst excels at in today’s sensor- and data-rich commercial world, blending traditional forecasting with detailed, location-specific intel. And the stakes are high. “If we get the forecast wrong, it can really impact the market supply chain, resulting in negative impact to the price of our product,” Christensen says.

The predictions are used by teams across the company, from planning to operations to distribution. “They’re all taking our supply forecast and that’s really the engine of our company as far as kicking everything off that goes forward,” Martinez says. The forecast affects everything from how much product the company can promise grocers, to how many trucks it will need for transport, to the anticipated space required in each warehouse location.

When Christensen first lobbied to bring GIS into Driscoll’s analysis operations, he recognized the need for a new kind of analysis—and new analysts to oversee it. “The GIS concept was new to a lot of the leaders in the business,” he recalls, “because they were used to working in . . .  a tabular data world.”

Once they bought into the concept of making decisions based on map-driven intelligence, data accuracy took center stage. “In the past, you always knew there was some sort of noise in the acreage data,” Christensen says. “But there’s a high degree of confidence now in the underlying data because of the processes of this Atlas system.”

Facilitating Prediction and Innovation

Miller‘s ideas for novel uses of smart maps often spring from conversations with colleagues from different departments. At Driscoll’s, “there’s a pretty strong belief in the power of learning from each other,” Christensen says. That collaborative, interdisciplinary energy helps fuel Miller’s passion.

Transparency is another key value of the company; growers are encouraged to share findings with one another, and an internal master data repository, or data lake, enables information to flow through the company, strengthening the reach of Miller’s analysis. “One of my favorite parts about the role is being able to collaborate with so many different groups,” she says.

One recent example of GIS’s influence at Driscoll’s was in creating a contingency plan for COVID-19’s impact on the business. If a cooling station or warehouse in the company’s supply chain stopped operation due to sick workers or contaminated surfaces, truckloads of fruit might become stranded, threatening the integrity of the berries.

Using the analytical capabilities of the Atlas platform, Miller identified alternate warehouses within a two-hour trucking window of each of the company’s ranches. By marrying those maps with other forms of data, such as how many berries were forecast to be ready for shipment during particular periods, Miller could suggest even more detailed plans. Those included scenarios in which a batch of fruit might need to be split among multiple warehouses. Miller’s smart maps showed how the company could do that efficiently, given the expected yield of berries from specific fields.  

“It’s stuff like that I think was really fun because it’s a big problem, but it’s also a bigger solution,” Miller says.

GIS’s Future: From Fires to Demand Forecasting

One of the first use cases of spatial intelligence at Driscoll’s that really turned the heads of company executives came during recent California wildfires. Using the Atlas platform, Miller was able to track the path of the fires and anticipate where they might spread, revealing their proximity to ranches and potential risks to employee safety. Berries are sensitive to air quality too; by using smart maps to see where the smoke might drift, Driscoll’s anticipated which farms might be affected and how much fruit was at risk.

Other use cases for location intelligence have included helping colleagues visualize land regulations for farming, understand the company’s agricultural footprint, and calculate how much plastic is used in growing cycles—a focus of the sustainability team.

Miller, Christensen, and Martinez believe that Driscoll’s and companies like it are still just scratching the surface of how GIS and location data can improve business operations. Location intelligence can be used to forecast consumer demand at stores, complement artificial intelligence and blockchain technology in creating supply chain visibility, support precision agriculture on a row-by-row level, improve farm site selection for maximum yields, and assess local labor markets.

“From afar, many don’t realize that it’s not just about mapping, it’s about how you can really unlock key parts of your business through leveraging those details that have been captured,” Martinez says. “That was an eye-opener for me.”

Service Leadership in the World of Data

GIS professionals are well-positioned to fill the new analyst role because the technology is inherently integrative, facilitating collaboration between departments. Miller’s success in this space has come as no surprise to Danielle Bram, director of the Center for Geospatial Science and Technology at California State University Northridge, and one of the cofounders of Women in GIS.

Miller initially served as outreach lead for the group, which provides mentorship, networking, and professional development to women in geospatial technology. She got involved after attending a tech conference where she was one of only a few women.

Miller has had a big hand in helping the group grow, according to Bram. “She was absolutely one of the top people who really helped us get to the next level. We couldn’t have done it without her.” Recently, Miller was elected president.

Now, her talents as a location analyst and her outgoing disposition are bringing awareness to a burgeoning profession.

“You want to work with those types of people that are just so excited to get up in the morning and go do what they do best,” Martinez says of Miller. Those qualities have lent momentum to her role at Driscoll’s. “She’s really been an exemplary leader over this multi-year journey,” Christensen says. By taking an empathetic stance in her work, she’s able to fine-tune the technology to better serve all parties, from the hard-working data collectors in the field to the decision-makers and executives who use geospatial insights to steer the company forward.

Miller’s career path has arced away from the “whale petter” vocation that her eight-year-old self envisioned—though she did get a chance to go diving with giant manta rays early this year. “I keep marine biology in my back pocket as a hobby,” she says.

Meanwhile, businesses are investing in new analysts like Miller who can discover patterns in location data.

“More and more, we’re starting to see the world in more of a spatially driven manner,” she says. “I think it’s taking a while to get there because we still end up exporting things to spreadsheets. But in the end, those spreadsheets have a latitude and a longitude, and that’s the beginning step to it. Being able to physically show this data is such a powerful communication tool.”

See how major brands are using location intelligence, visit esri.com/wherenext

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