Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Horsemeat Nightmare: Is It Time For Open Data?

As supermarkets currently run around faster than a contestant on Supermarket Sweep, testing their products to check that what they're selling is actually what they claim they're selling, the question of how they can rebuild consumer trust in the aftermath of the horsemeat scandal arises. An announcement to say that a product has been recalled, or even that a product has been tested and assured to be "safe", can only go so far to reassuring a customer that the supermarkets have any grasp on what the food they're selling is, and where it has come from.

Thinking about this with a Web Science hat on, the need to comfort consumers and inspire long-term confidence in their organisations presents the opportunity for a change in the way this information is presented to shoppers. Food labels are one thing, but they are constrained by space to detail the entire composition of a product, including where each ingredient has been sourced from. But these are the days of the Web, the days where thousands of shoppers are walking around stores with camera-ready phones, many of them already scanning products to compare prices against other chains. A food label no longer needs to be restricted to the physical packaging on the product itself.

More rigorous and regular testing for products has already been proposed with the FSA due to publish test results of beef products every three months. If testing is increasing, then more data will be created, and while press releases may go some way to reassuring customers that they have been done, this seems like a very out-of-date way of releasing the data. This data should surely be released as open data, linked to more data about the supply chain, creating a comprehensive data store of where each and every ingredient to each and every product is sourced from. A concerned customer can then only ever be a URL away from finding a product's source, a comprehensive breakdown of it's contents and their origin, and, most importantly at times like these after a potential breakdown in customer confidence, a history of test results to show that the supermarket does have a grasp over what they're selling. Open data has been pushed for governments. Is now the time to call for power-wielding organisations to do the same?

A quick Web Science point around the digital inequalities perspective now. Of course, while the Web can facilitate this publication of data, having the data available online would be of no use to a shopper who, whether by choice or other circumstance, has no Internet access. Every effort should be made to ensure any customer can access this information, so I think there is still a need for a more reliable summary on food labels, and possibly some sort of paper-based booklet to contain everything so that anyone can look up a product they may have queries about. This goes further than just the horsemeat scandal really, and could ultimately help people understand what they're actually eating. (I will stop now before getting too deep in to a food/nutrition/additive debate!)

This all came to me rather abruptly as I was having breakfast this morning, so I'll think about the potential here some more, but I think the way to inspire trust is to be more open - something that the Web facilitates and is actively pursuing in other sectors. Is it time for Web Science to ride in and save the day?



Tim Davies said...

This is an interesting response - giving consumers better information on supply chains of products through open data would certainly be very interesting to explore.

The Fair Tracing project explored various was to get project supply chain data attached to fair trade products ( and there might be some learning from this to draw out.

There are certainly a lot of web science issues in here - from the technical challenges of managing either distributed data on supply chains or large data stores - through the governance and security questions (can we trust the data) - HCI questions (how would people use the data?) - and social questions (which firms would benefit / loose out; which consumers would use the data / which would not).

Do you know of anyone in the web science community looking at food and web science?

cpheth said...

Thanks for the comment Tim, the Fair Tracing project definitely looks like a good starting point. The more I think about it, the more possibilities there seem to be for this sort of thing - tracing produce back to farms around the world may make people more willing to purchase a product that offers the producer a better deal, and create greater awareness of global food chains.

There are certainly a lot of Web Science issues here, and in no way is it as simple as saying "this is a technical solution, it will work". I like the thought that it could have an impact though, and it would be great to see some investigation carried out in to it. I don't know of anyone looking at food and web science but I think this is definitely an opportunity!

Tim Davies said...

Just spotted also which looks like an interesting data source...

cpheth said...

Ah super, yes that would be very useful for integrating into it. I guess that is one step towards it!