NextGen Interview: Tom Ward

Tom Ward

IBM is using Artificial Intelligence on the cloud to understand and interact with supply chain data.

We spoke with Tom Ward, cognitive project leader at IBM. A 30-year IBM veteran, Ward appeared in the pages of Supply Management Review in early 2014 when he was leading global development and deployment of the company’s Integrated Supply Chain cloud computing strategy as it explored the potential of the cloud.

NextGen Supply Chain: In your piece in SCMR four years ago, you had this to say about the cloud, which was in its early stages at the time: “our experience with cloud computing thus far has proved to be promising. The results provide ample justification for continued investment in cloud, particularly in terms of managing time and project commitments.” How would you describe the importance of the cloud to IBM’s supply chain today?

Ward: The use of the cloud has exploded.  Most information technology growth is on the cloud. Today, we are using Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies on the cloud: to understand, reason, learn and interact with our supply chain data.

NextGen Supply Chain: That’s a pretty strong endorsement of the cloud. So, what are you working on now?

Ward: The formal name is Supply Chain Risk Insights powered by Watson. But don’t be put off by the name. This is the coolest thing I’ve ever worked on.

NextGen Supply Chain: Don’t leave us hanging. What exactly is Risk Insights?

Ward: It’s a platform for IBM to track weather and natural disasters and predict their impact on the supply chain. Risk Insights overlays current and predicted events for the next two weeks across the globe, identifying the location of IBM facilities as well as those of its suppliers. By tracking these events and anticipating their impact on supply chains, IBM can anticipate and mitigate their impact on the flow of materials and goods.

NextGen Supply Chain: That is pretty cool. Can you give us an example of how it works?

Ward: Sure. July is a tough weather month for Japan. A typhoon hit the country over this past weekend. Using Risk Insights, we were able to track the path and expected intensity of the typhoon and plot it against IBM’s and its suppliers’ sites that were in harm’s way. By the way, it helps that IBM bought The Weather Company a few years ago.

NextGen Supply Chain: So, we’re talking about lots of data here. Where does it all come from and how does the cloud fit in?

Ward: Quite simply, Risk Insights wouldn’t exist without the cloud. Let me take a step back first.

In my early cloud and data analytics work, most of the data we analyzed was structured in rows and columns. Today over 80% of data is unstructured. Risk Insights uses the cloud and artificial intelligence to marry structured and unstructured data to gain new insights.
And we get data from lots of sources. There’s, of course, The Weather Company data.

But we are also pulling data from social media, the National Weather Service, the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination Systems and other alert services. Tracking social media, including tweets, gives us great insights into damage, evacuations and related fallout from these events. We’re also tracking social and labor unrest along with volcanoes, earthquakes and factory fires.

Our application programming interfaces, APIs, pull the data from these and other sources to analyze current events and project future ones. That projection is where artificial intelligence comes into the picture as we monitor the impact on over 13,000 locations worldwide.
The cloud pulls all the sources into IBM’s Cognitive Enterprise Data Platform, which is where all the structured and unstructured data is accumulated and housed. The outcome is a map-based visual display with commentary that can be used to mitigate risk at affected locations.

NextGen Supply Chain: That sounds like a lot of data for anyone to absorb. How do you make that manageable?

Ward: To start, this is for internal IBM use only. Managers can identify events and locations that they want to track. The system customizes their feeds and notifies them in real time of events that could affect their supply chain.

NextGen Supply Chain: Can you tell us more about the AI angle here?

Ward: We are starting to use Watson AI, we call it augmented intelligence, to compare the current event with a profile of events in the past. Along the way, IBM purchased the records from the International Disaster Database which covers more than 21,000 events since 1900 worldwide. Each event’s profile includes its attributes and impact on the area and people affected including deaths and economic losses.

Our ambition is to use Watson to take this information and analyze it against a current event profile as well as current demographics including population density and infrastructure. IBM recently announced a Disaster Recovery Call for Code for developers globally to use new these technologies to benefit disaster victims.

It’s all about using the cloud to bring together both structured and unstructured data with machine learning to anticipate the impact of weather and natural disasters on our supply chain. If that isn’t very cool, I don’t know what is.

Gary Forger is the special projects editor for Supply Chain Management Review. He can be reached at