I came across an interesting article today in the New Scientist on the topic of mass-scale food annotation. The idea is that we can instrument our food, so that we know much more about its origin and manner of production:
WHERE does your food come from? A few years ago, most consumers were satisfied with a sticker showing the country of origin. But concerns about fair trade and the environment, as well as food safety, are now driving a wave of projects aimed at tracking food from farm to shopping basket. Though price is still the main factor determining the food that people buy, many are demanding to know more about its source. This is partly due to a series of recent food safety scandals, from major outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli to melamine showing up in baby formula and pet food. “The public want to know where their food and other products come from, how they are made, and whether they contain any ‘unhealthful’ contaminants,” says Dara O’Rourke, an environmental policy expert at the University of California, Berkeley. Ethical and environmental concerns figure prominently, too. In the US, for example, “a small but rapidly growing percentage of the population – perhaps 8 to 10 per cent – are deeply interested in these issues,” says food policy expert Marion Nestle of New York University. “Interest in where food comes from is part of a growing social movement.”
Most manufacturers already use barcodes or RFID chips to track their products. But with the help of cheap cellphone and internet access it is becoming possible to collate data from remote locations around the world and make it available to the people who are actually going to eat the food. In many cases manufacturers are alive to the notion that transparency about the source of their food is good for business. Sime Darby, a large palm oil supplier in Indonesia and Malaysia, is working with FoodReg, a firm based in Barcelona, Spain, that develops food-tracking software. The idea is to develop a system to prove to customers that its crops are not grown on land recently occupied by tropical rainforest. In remote regions where farmers don’t have access to computers, they can use cellphones to record onto FoodReg’s online database the time and place the crop was harvested. Tracking systems like this should also make it easy to calculate the distance that goods travel to reach stores, allowing consumers to estimate the greenhouse gas emissions racked up by the transport of their food. “The calculation of food miles and carbon footprint could be the killer application for traceability,” says Heiner Lehr of FoodReg. “The technology is there. If a big retailer puts itself behind this, it could happen very fast.”
Projects like this are interesting to me because I can imagine myself in the future making decisions about how and what I buy, based on the information that I am able to obtain about my various choices. In fact, it would be nice to be able to walk into the grocery store with the information seeking intent of finding a good source of protein (whether chicken or beef, or maybe even just beans) for the evening’s meal, and come out of the store with a product that not only fit my budget, but that I felt good about buying. But in order to make this information useful to consumers, there has to be some sort of search or information retrieval layer built on top of the data.
This is where the “I’m feeling lucky” model of simply trying to give the consumer an “answer” breaks down. In the complexity of the real world, there are often tradeoffs that have to be made between any number of good (and sometimes not so good) options. What the grocery consumer/searcher needs, then, is not a ranked list of answers about the best protein source that day. The consumer needs a good HCIR, exploratory search method for interacting with and expressing preferences between competing tradeoffs. The consumer needs to be example to express which factors are more and less important to one’s decision, in order to exploratorily guide the search engine to diverse sets of options.
Food-source search appears to be a good domain for exploratory search.