Big data and little farmers markets, Part 1

Recently, I have been reading a few books and articles on the new world looming over the next bend. This new world is called many things and includes shiny named ideas and tools to make it so. Here are some of those titles in case anyone needs some bedside reading:

•Collaborative Commons (Rifkin, (The Zero Marginal Costs Society)
•Disruption (Next City 2012, Fortune 2014 “Next up for disruption: The grocery business”, Urbanophile 2014, Disrupting the Disruptors )
•Flattened economy (Friedman The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century 2005)
•Spiky Economy (Florida, “The World Is Spiky” 2005)
•Alternative Economics, Community-Supported Industry (Anderberg 2012, Schumacher Center for New Economics)
•Social impact bonds (Jacobin Magazine Issue 15–16 “Friendly Fire”)
•Placemaking/Livable Places (PPS, Tactical Urbanism, CityLab)
•Human-Centered Design (LUMA, Ideo)

and then bunches on how to measure this stuff:
•Measuring Urban Design: Metrics for Livable Places (Ewing, Clemente 2013)
•3 Keys To Better Data-Driven Decisions (Technology Evaluation Centers)
•Five Borough Farm II: Growing the Benefits of Urban Agriculture in NYC (Design Trust for Public Space 2014)
•Data Infoactive (Chiasson, Gregory 2013)
•Disruption Index (Next City 2012)
•Livability Index ( 2014)

and so on. (and please feel free to send me any that you find useful).

Much of this discussion of the new economy and its infrastructure centers around the use of technology to allow data (usually known as Big Data) produced by every system, sensor, and mobile device to be shared across sectors and users – aka the Internet of Things (IoT). Big Data and IoT are representative of what is both good and bad about the new world; they pressure public entities to adopt private sector characteristics and measures, and conversely, ask private entities to add public sector transparency as a mode of operating in this new world. Additionally, both sectors must respond immediately to any trends or innovations. This can be good and bad.
 (The intersection of public and private is what the non-profit sector is supposed to exist and, increasingly how it participates in Big Data, is a measure of its ability to do just that. I’ll come back to that very idea later in this series.)

Examples of Big Data:
Think of how that grocery store loyalty card transmits information about what, when and where customers purchase goods. Or citizen used tools to measure and report pollution, or how that electronic parking card tells the city the peak parking hours, letting planners know the need for more (or less) parking facilities. Or, the sensors that are timed to go off for irrigation to start for food production.
For food system advocates, the connection to data sharing is mostly through the public health sector at this point, but the planning and design sector of governments will be wanting data from us too and then, you can expect the line to form from other sectors after that.

Social media is not the center of Big Data, but it’s already helping to study the behavior of its millions of users. In the interdisciplinary Cornell University course entitled “Networks, Crowds and Markets” taught by professors David Easley, Jon Kleinberg, and Éva Tardos, they use data from online networks to talk about “strong and weak ties” and “bridges” and to map the patterns of why, how and when connections are made and what impact those connections have in the fields of economics, social sciences, and public health, among others. Since social media is mostly networking, informal updates, and chatter, (constant and sometimes as cheerfully mindless as an acquaintance’s wave from across the street), it may seem without value, but it is certainly changing the way that we communicate.
Social media can also power revolutions, allow for professional development and offer small businesses appealingly designed, low-cost online faces for their already-developed customer base. This blog you are reading is part of social media and as such, is written to be ephemeral and chatty opinion with links to other information sources rather than hosting peer-reviewed reports.

Recently, I had the good fortune (thanks to the Farmers Market Coalition) to be invited to a Knight Foundation technology gathering of social entrepreneurs and so heard many ideas for leashing the power of Twitter and other social media platforms to better aggregate data or reorganize news feeds. No doubt as new platforms are built on top of the first tier, there will be more usability and versatility, but for now, many people view it as a multi-platform address book to keep track of friends, colleagues, and friends of friends.

The ease of using social media is what was beguiling to many at first but the gossamer veil of privacy means that if not careful, one’s identity may be stolen or become the target of a bully. At that point, that once-enticing open entry can drive plenty away and that very fact is what is being argued about sites like Airbnb and Uber: 1) that the lack of regulation at city halls or public agencies allows for exemption of rules that their counterparts with physical outlets are not able to sidestep and 2) since there is often no face to face meeting between buyer and user, the perceived opportunity for criminal activity increases. My feeling is that the regulation needed for the IoT and online sites must be a new system rather than asking for adherence to the old since the old grey mare of city hall or the federal government is not suited for managing these (which sounds like what the community food system has been saying for the last few decades!)
The European Commission has already published a report outlined some best practices for architectural, ethics and governance of the IoT, highlighting social justice, privacy and opting out concerns (“consent activities” in designer language). Their early conclusions encourage better credential exchange systems and a deeper awareness of “reliance versus trust” parameters. In short, make sure most online relationships include a requirement for sharing some sort of identification and create some active boundaries between systems. Maybe the U.S. community food system can jump on these ideas, thereby leaping ahead in confidence levels to be able to share useful data more rapidly than other sectors.

Yet, even with the perception of these systems as being hackable, an increasing number of people in the Western world still participate regularly even while others hoot it down while they cling to their wall phone and postal stamps as their talismans against the new world of constant updates. Those folks are not likely to let us forget that social media is just a part of the communication sector and only the ephemeral part of it. We still read newspapers and books, meet people face to face and still have postal carriers and grocery store corkboards with lists of apartments to rent.
Therefore, how we use social media within community food systems has to be balanced far better than we early adopters have done so far. Plenty of markets and other food system initiatives use social media brilliantly within its limited use, but others often ignore traditional media entirely by not factoring in that those reached with social media are only a tiny portion of the audience that might be found. Or conversely for the Luddites among us, the need to adapt their thinking to understand that social media has worth for a low-capacity, face-to-face entity like a Saturday morning market.
What I have noticed is that social media helps drive farmers market or CSA sales for a single or a few products on a single day extremely well. It also does a passable to good job reminding its users that they are members of a larger community of doers and thinkers, which can extend the social and human capital of a market. It can connect producers to shoppers on non-market days (although I think less well than promised) and can do something akin to the Dot Survey method pioneered at market by Stephenson, Brewer and Lev: allow for an easy mood of the day give and take between market organizers and users. It also is that friendly wave from across the street that in our sped up world can stand in for reminder of community on a bad day and add a layer of connection. Let’s just not build our world entirely on chance meetings or depend on a small number of tools.

update This morning, I am sitting in a farmer workshop at Southern SSAWG conference listening to a 5th generation farmer talk about the open source free crop planning software system, sensors, and apps that he uses to run his direct marketing farm business; clearly, for some, the IoT is already here.

Coming Soon
Part 2 The minefield of analyzing Big Data
Part 3 Connecting farmers markets and food systems to Big Data
Part 4 Managing face to face and online communities in farmers markets

Coming Soon
Part 2 The minefield of analyzing Big Data
Part 3 Connecting farmers markets and food systems to Big Data
Part 4 Managing face to face and online communities in farmers markets


1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Big data doesn’t have to be Big Brother | Helping Public Markets Grow

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