Big data doesn’t have to be Big Brother

This article easily says what I attempted to do in my 3-part Big Data, Little Farmers Markets posts earlier in the year.

The same data and algorithms that wreak havoc on workers’ lives could just as easily be repurposed to improve them. Worker cooperatives or strong, radical unions could use the same algorithms to maximize workers’ well being…

…Big data, like all technology, is imbued within social relations. Despite the rhetoric of its boosters and detractors, there is nothing inherently progressive or draconian about big data. Like all technology, its uses reflect the values of the society we live in.

Under our present system, the military and government use big data to suppress populations and spy on civilians. Corporations use it to boost profits, increase productivity, and extend the process of commodification ever deeper into our lives. But data and statistical algorithms don’t produce these outcomes — capitalism does. To realize the potentially amazing benefits of big data, we must fight against the undemocratic forces that seek to turn it into a tool of commodification and oppression.

Big Data article

Big Data on Shopping and Transportation

Some of you may remember the 3-part Big Data and farmers market posts I did a few months back. Here is another article from Next City that talks of a Big Data partnership for city planners to understand how people move about, to shop and to work.

What is great about this type of big data is that many markets can be a part of this data since a significant number of them accept MasterCard cards, either at the Welcome Booth or among vendors. Think about a funder doing this, using the number of and dollar amount of transaction metrics to analyze with transportation data; it could illuminate the need for more buses during market hours or simply to show the cluster patterns of market shopping among card users. That data could then pinpoint outreach.

By combining MasterCard’s transactions data (they process 43 billion per year) with Cubic’s transportation data, analytics and visualization technology, the platform — dubbed the Urbanomics Mobility Project — will yield insight into the way transit and economic activity are linked in cities.

https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/how-human-is-big-datas-newest-city-planning-tool

Big Data and Little Farmers Markets, Part 3

I used these examples in Part 2 of this series, but wanted to use them again for this post. To review:

Market A (which runs on Saturday morning downtown) is asked by its city to participate in a traffic planning project that will offer recommendations for car-free weekend days in the city center. The city will also review the requirement for parking lots in every new downtown development and possibly recalibrate where parking meters are located. To do this, the city will add driving strips to the areas around the market to count the cars and will monitor the meters and parking lot uses over the weekend. The market is being asked for its farmers to track their driving for all trips to the city and ask shoppers to do Dot Surveys on their driving experiences to the market on the weekend. Public transportation use will be gathered by university students.

Market B is partnering with an agricultural organization and other environmental organizations to measure the level of knowledge and awareness about farming in the greater metropolitan area. For one summer month, the market and other organizations will ask their supporters and farmers to use the hashtag #Junefarminfo on social media to share any news about markets, farm visits, gardening data or any other seasonal agricultural news.

Market C is working with its Main Street stores to understand shopping patterns by gathering data on average sales for credit and debit users. The Chamber of Commerce will also set up observation stations at key intersections to monitor Main Street shopper behavior such as where they congregate.

Market D has a grant with a health care corporation to offer incentives and will ask those voucher users to track their personal health care stats and their purchase and consumption of fresh foods. The users will get digital tools such as cameras to record their meals, voice recorders to record their children’s opinions about the menus (to upload on an online log) with their health stats such as BP, exercise regimen. That data will be compared to the larger Census population.

So all those ideas show how markets and their partners might be able to begin to use the world of Big Data. In those examples, one can see how the market benefits from having data that is (mostly) collected without a lot of work on the market’s part and yet is useful for them and for the larger community that the market also serves.

However, one of the best ways that markets can benefit from Big Data is slightly closer to home and even more useful to the stability and growth of the market itself. That is: to analyze and map the networks that markets foster and maintain, which is also known as network theory.
Network theory is a relatively new science that rose to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s and is about exploring and defining the relationships that a person or a community has and how, through their influence, their behavior is altered. What’s especially exciting about this work is that it combines many disciplines from mathematics to economics to social sciences.

A social network perspective can mean that data about relationships between the individuals can be as useful as the data about individuals themselves. Some people talk about this work in terms of strong ties and weak ties. Strong ties are the close relationships that we use with greater frequency and offer support and weak ties are those acquaintances who offer new information and connect us to other networks. The key is that in order to really understand a network, it is important to analyze the behavior of any member of the network in relation to other members action. This has a lot to do with incentives, which is obviously something markets have a lot of interest in.

From the book Networks, Crowds, and Markets: Reasoning about a Highly Connected World. By David Easley and Jon Kleinberg. Cambridge University Press, 2010. Complete preprint on-line at http://www.cs.cornell.edu/home/kleinber/networks-book/

From the book Networks, Crowds, and Markets: Reasoning about a Highly Connected World.
By David Easley and Jon Kleinberg. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Complete preprint on-line at http://www.cs.cornell.edu/home/kleinber/networks-book/

From the foodsystemsnetwork.org website

From the foodsystemsnetwork.org website

network analysis

network analysis

I could go on and on about different theories and updates and critiques on these ideas, but the point to make here is this is science that is so very useful to the type of networks that food systems are propagating. Almost all of the work that farmers markets do rely on network theory without directly ascribing to it.

Think about a typical market day: a market could map each vendors booth to understand what people come to each table, using Dot Surveys or intercept surveys. That data could assist the vendor and the market. The market will benefit in knowing which are the anchor vendors of the market, which vendors constantly attract new shoppers, which vendors share shoppers etc. The market could also find out who among their shoppers bring information and ideas into the market and who carrries them out to the larger world from the market. All of this data would be mapped visually and would allow the market to be strategic with its efforts, connecting the appropriate type of shoppers to the vendors, expanding the product list for the shoppers likely to purchase new goods and so on.

Network theory would be quite beneficial to markets in their work to expand the reach to benefit program users and in the use of incentives. Since these market pilots began around 2005/2006, it has been a struggle to understand how to create a regular, return user of markets among those who have many barriers to adding this style of health and civic engagement. Those early markets created campaigns designed to offer the multiple and unique benefits of markets as a reason for benefit program shoppers to spend their few dollars there. Those markets also worked to reduce the barriers whenever possible by working with agencies on providing shuttles, offering activities for children while shopping, and adding non-traditional hours and locations for markets. Those efforts in New York, Arizona, California, Maryland, Massachusetts and Louisiana (among others) were positive but the early results were very small, attracting only a few of the shoppers desired. When the outcomes were analyzed by those organizations, it seemed that a few issues were cropping up again and again:
1. The agency that distributed the news of these market programs didn’t understand markets or did not have a relationship of trust with their clients that encouraged introduction of new ideas or acceptance of advice in changing their habits.
2. The market itself was not ready to welcome new benefit program shoppers- too few items were available or the market was not always welcoming to new shoppers who required extra steps and new payment systems.
3. Targeting the right group of “early adopters” among the large benefit program shopping base was impossible to decipher.
4. Some barriers remained and were too large for markets alone to address (lack of transportation or distance for example).
4. Finding the time for staff to do all of that work.

Over time, markets did their best to address these concerns, which has led to the expansion of these systems into every state and a combined impact in the millions for SNAP purchases at markets alone. The cash incentives assisted a great deal, especially with #2 and #4. However, this work would be made so much easier and the impact so much larger if network theory was applied.
Consider:
Market A is going to add a centralized card processing system and has funds to offer a cash incentive. But how to spend it? And how to prepare the market for the program?

If the market joined forces with a public health agency and a social science research team from a nearby university, it might begin by mapping the networks in that market to understand the strong and weak ties it contains as well as the structural holes in its network. It might find out that its vendors attract few new shoppers regularly or that the market’s staff is not connected to many outside actors in the larger network, thereby reducing the chance for information to flow.
It might also see that younger shoppers are not coming to the market and therefore conclude that focusing its efforts on attracting older benefit program shoppers (especially at first) might be a strategic move. If the market has a great many low-income shoppers using FMNP coupons already, the mapping of those shoppers may offer much data about how the market supports benefit program shoppers already and how it might expand with an audience already at market
The public health agency might do the same mapping for the agencies that are meant to offer the news of the market’s program. That mapping might find certain agencies or centers are better at introducing new ideas or have a population that is aligned already with the market’s demographic and therefore likely to feel welcomed.

As for incentives, what markets and their partners routinely tell me is more money is not always the answer. Not knowing what is expected from the use of the incentives or how to reach the best audience for that incentive is exhausting them or at least, puzzling them.
If markets knew their networks and knew where the holes were, they could use their incentive dollars much more efficiently and run their markets without burning out their staff or partners.
They might offer different incentives for their different locations, based on the barriers or offerings for each location. (They may also offer incentives to their vendors to test out new crops.)
If connectors are seen in large numbers in a market, then a “bring a friend” incentive might be offered, or if the mapping shows a large number of families entering the system in that area, then an incentive for a family level shopping experience may be useful.
One of the most important hypotheses that markets should use in their incentive strategy is how can they create a regular shopper through the use of the incentive. Of course, it is not the only hypothesis for a market; a large flagship market might identify their role as introducing new shoppers to their markets every month and use their funds to do just that. But for many markets with limited staff and small populations in and around the market, a never-ending cycle of new shoppers coming in for a few months and then not returning may not be the most efficient way to spend those dollars or their time. So this is also where network theory could be helpful.
By asking those using their EBT card to tell in detail where and how they heard about the program and by also tracking the number of visits they have after their introduction, we could begin to see which introductions work the best. Or by asking a small group of new EBT shoppers to be members of a long-term shopping focus group to track what happens during their visit (how many vendors they purchase from and how long they stay) and after (see Market D example at the top), we could learn about what EBT shoppers in that area value in their market experience. We may also find out that the market has few long-term return shoppers from the EBT population or we may find out that connectors become easy to spot and therefore they can be rewarded when sharing information on the market’s behalf.
In all of these cases, it will be easier for the staff to know what to do and when to do it if they understand their networks both in and around the market.
And of course, mapping the larger food systems around the markets’ systems would be exciting and could move policy issues to action sooner and allow funding to be increased for initiatives to fill the holes found.

However markets do it, what seems necessary is to know specifically who is using markets and how and why they decided to begin to use them and to whom those folks are connected. Network theory can be the best and widest use of the world of Big Data, especially to accomplish what Farmers Market Coalition has set as their call to action: that markets are for everyone.

Some reading, if you are interested:

http://www.foodsystemnetworks.org

The Tipping Point

http://www.cs.cornell.edu/home/kleinber/networks-book/networks-book-ch03.pdf

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/301/5634/827.full.pdf

http://melander335.wdfiles.com/local–files/reading-history/kadushin.pdf

Big data, little farmers markets Part 2: The minefield of analyzing Big Data

In the first installment of this series, I introduced the idea of Big Data, the Internet of things (IoT) and what social media has promised and what it has delivered. I promised some thoughts on analysis next. here goes:

•Big Data is partly defined by its resistance to analysis. The volume, velocity and variety of Big Data makes problems for easy collection and analysis. This story on the struggle among safe street advocates to find good data speaks to that issue.

•Big Data is probably more appealing to advertisers than to our often shadowy government at this point but still, we should keep an eye on both of them and their analysis/use of Big Data.

•Lastly, as put so well by the author of Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One is Looking), much of behavioral science research is based on WEIRD research: White, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic nation’s subjects. Big Data may help to offset that issue.

Markets already intersect with Big Data across many different sectors, such as health care, the public sector, agriculture and retail. So let’s think about how this could play out for markets:
What if a researcher used the total dollars spent at markets on SNAP and compared it to grocery store SNAP sales on a map, not adjusting for hours open or the number of goods or markets available or fixed costs to offer those goods? Or how about the decrease in certification for organic farmers among market vendors – What if that was just a graph showing the decrease year after year, without the analysis that many farmers stated that they feel they do not need certification while they sell directly to shoppers and are therefore able to explain their practices? What if those maps/graphs were what influenced policymakers?

Some scenarios to ponder:

    •Market A (which runs on Saturday morning downtown) is asked by its city to participate in a traffic planning project that will offer recommendations for car-free weekend days in the city center. The city will also review the requirement for parking lots in every new downtown development and possibly recalibrate where parking meters are located. To do this, the city will add driving strips to the areas around the market to count the auto traffic and will monitor the meters and parking lot uses over the weekend. The market is being asked for its farmers to track their driving for all trips to the city and ask shoppers to do Dot Surveys on their driving experiences to the market on the weekend. Public transportation use will be gathered by university students.

    •Market B is partnering with an agricultural organization and other environmental organizations to measure the level of knowledge and awareness about farming in the greater metropolitan area. For one summer month, the market and other organizations will ask their supporters and farmers to use the hashtag #Junefarminfo on social media to share any news about markets, farm visits, gardening data or any other seasonal agricultural news.

    •Market C is working with its Main Street stores to understand shopping patterns by gathering data on average sales for credit and debit users. The Chamber of Commerce will also set up observation stations at key intersections to capture visual data on visitor behavior.

    •Market D has a grant with a health care corporation to offer incentives and will ask those voucher users to track their personal health care stats and their purchase and consumption of fresh foods. The users will get digital tools such as cameras to record their meals, voice recorders to record their children’s opinions about the menus (to upload on an online log) with their health stats such as BP, exercise regimen. That data will be compared to the larger Census population.

In all of these cases, the data to be collected crosses sectors and systems, meaning that no one entity has all of the raw data at their disposal at all times. That boils down into Analysis Issue #1

In all of these cases, the data to be collected has many ways to be interpreted, based on which entity is interpreting the data. Analysis Issue #2

In most of these cases, the data collected requires some self-reporting. Analysis Issue #3

In some of these cases, privacy controls must be strictly managed and will affect how much analysis can be done. Analysis Issue #4

from the New York Times:
“The first thing to note is that although big data is very good at detecting correlations, especially subtle correlations that an analysis of smaller data sets might miss, it never tells us which correlations are meaningful (italics added). Analysis Issue #5

Check out this site for fun examples of how matching correlations doesn’t always add up to good conclusions.

The thing we should be able to agree on: all partners should be involved with the analysis and should receive access to the raw data. That means markets participating in just the data collection piece is not enough. They need to be involved in the analysis because if not, the context of markets will be lost.
Yet we know that just collecting the data is be a massive undertaking for low-capacity markets (even assume some funding is offered in all of these cases for the partners to staff the collection of the data), not even adding in the time and effort it takes to analyze it. What might help is to have some analysis prepared ahead of time and to prepare the market community for participation.
1. This means that every market association, or group of markets or markets themselves should keep information about each market’s history, size, structure and staffing in separate PDFs. This, by the way, is a resource that Farmers Market Coalition (for whom I am a consultant) is working on with one of their university partners, the University of Wisconsin to pilot for their AFRI Indicators for Impact project . Hopefully, the Market Profile will be available online for all markets to test in 2015- stay tuned!
2. Markets need to know the area’s current demographic and other relevant details. Check the census to know what the larger population’s stats are and make friends with real estate professionals to keep up on trends in the neighborhood.
3. Do a Dot Survey or Bean Poll a few times a year asking shoppers to tell you what zip code they live in, how they come to the market, things like that and keep track of that data. Maybe a big dry wipe calendar on the wall to add all data collected?
4. Market boards and advisors should keep any data already collected and the Profile information to be able to share it as needed in any meeting they happen to attend in their own professional lives.
5. When researchers do come to your market with an offer to help with data collection, be ready to ask for data you want. How about asking for focus group data so that a market can begin to build “persona profiles” of those who come to the market? Or ask for added analysis for numbers that you think might be important for the market: those who know me have heard my song about finding a way to track the number of return SNAP shoppers and how I think it that metric is so useful for markets and possibly even more useful than total SNAP dollars, in terms of analysis.

5. Encourage city or county public health agencies to offer a semi-annual breakfast for those entities that work on community interventions (like markets, health clinics, social service entities, university programs, youth outreach etc) to share news about what they are seeing in their field and to share any data informally. If meetings are impossible, then a regular email would work. In other words, stay in touch with other data collection efforts in your community.

I’ll end this post with some of the lovely words of Dataclysm author Christian Rudder who was talking about the Vietnam Memorial’s physical self versus its online database self:

“A web page can’t replace granite. It can’t replace friendship or love or family either. But what it can do – as a conduit for our shared experience – is help us understand ourselves and our lives. The era of data is here; we are now recorded. That, like all change is frightening, but between the gunmetal gray of the government and the hot pink of product offers we just can’t refuse, there is an open and ungarish way. To use data to know yet not manipulate, to explore but not to pry, to protect but not to smother, to see yet never expose, and, above all, to repay that priceless gift we bequeath to the world when we share our lives so that other lives may be better – and to fulfill for everyone that oldest of human hopes, from Gilgamesh to Ramses to today:that our names be remembered not only in stone but as part of memory itself.”
I think I’ll adopt that bit as my mantra.

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 (livability.com 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

20150116-091953.jpg
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

In Head-Hunting, Big Data May Not Be Such a Big Deal – NYTimes.com

In the geeky world of data and analysis of markets that I live in most of the time, the article linked below was like candy. And it reminds me that sometimes data tells you to just trust your own knowledge about people.
The upshot  of this relies on an old adage that a seriously smart boss told me 35 years ago: “hire attitude, train skill.” That means so many things, but at its most basic means don’t waste your time trying to find indicators of later success by asking for tales of past success or levels of education among applicants (if not crucial to the work at hand), but instead know what the right attitude is for the job. For example, if it requires managing a market with a wide age span among vendors, then knowing how that person feels about people older or younger than them is key. Using behavioral questions can bring you closer to finding the set of skills that you need for your market or business.

Give us an example of a time you learned something from a coworker or colleague who was younger than you.

What would be your response if someone you worked with told you they never read emails or allow texts?

And that for leadership, the best measures are how consistent and fair the person is. Not how smart or hard-working or even fun that person is, but how fairly they treat everyone. This is true of a manager of staff and it is true of a manager of a market.

And on the employee side, it is crucial that the employees of a market are consistently and fairly evaluated on a regular basis. Everyone needs feedback on their work.

 

In Head-Hunting, Big Data May Not Be Such a Big Deal – NYTimes.com.

Data Matters in the Next Farm Bill

My colleague, Laurie Ristino up there in Vermont wrote a great blog about the need for data in terms of the farm bill. I remind every market and every food service organization that collecting data now is necessary for your state or national advocates to help build our farm bill agenda.

Data as a policy issue seems both prosaic and nerdy. But the absence of usable, quality data precludes the American public from reaping the value of their investment of billions in the farm bill. It’s time to unlock the ability to measure the farm bill’s impact and enhance the return.

Data is the currency of our modern economy. While often associated with the fortunes of Silicon Valley, big data is harnessed by companies that loom large in the agriculture sector to create new services and products key to their business strategies.

Professor Laurie Ristino is the founding director of the Vermont Law School Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS) and an associate professor of law. Professor Ristino is also the faculty adviser to the VLS Food and Agriculture Law Society.

Morning Consult

July Market Data Collection: Athens (OH) Chillicothe (OH) and New Orleans

Since 2002 or so, my public market focus has really been two-fold: designing grassroots markets and creating replicable ways to measure and share their success. Both are necessary in order for markets to remain at the fulcrum of viable and equitable food systems. And THAT means that the desire for programs and funding to create long-term stability and build professional skills must be integral to the field (which includes markets partners), which is far from the case as of yet.

One way we will get there is by capturing data that explains shared success measures while still illustrating innovative and unique approaches in each place. I am honored to be the eyes and ears for Farmers Market Coalition (FMC) and its partners on their Farmers Market Metrics work which we hope will serve those ends. I am in the middle of a summer of travel to sites to observe actual data collection at markets using the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s data collection protocols in the Indicators for Impacts AFRI-funded project shared with FMC and whenever possible, to stop at other markets to view their data collection too.

One of the big bugaboos seems to be in doing direct data collection with visitors or vendors; on a side note, it occurs to me as I write this how rarely I see Dot Surveys (or as we redefined them, Bean Polls!) any longer. Seemed to me that markets did them constantly in years past, but they may have began to decline for the same reasons I made the Bean Poll; vagaries of weather, managing blow-y pieces of paper and light-as-air easels outside, keeping track of previous hours responses etc. Let me stop for a minute to be clear: Bean Polls can only be used in very specific instances as described in the link above. Don’t think I mean that they can be used to collect sensitive data or replace intercept surveys-they cannot. But they can introduce the community to  regular data collection and offer a mood of the day response about possible trends. I wonder if the lack of Dot Survey I see is an indicator of something retreating in data collection at market level, or if I just show up at the wrong time…

And counting visitors- I don’t think I’ve ever suggested to a market that they should count their visitors regularly without them telling me it was near to or outright impossible. Okay, that maybe an overstatement, but I have heard that exact phrase quite often! I respect the low-capacity efficiency of markets, but I do think every market can do good Counting Days and I continue to dream up new ways that counting can be done without a slew of volunteers or paid staff. If anyone is up for trying them out, contact me at dar wolnik at gmail; but do know, it’ll require some planning…

In any case, what I see out there already are some very good systems for data collection that will probably work for small and large markets and everyone in between. As soon as those systems are tested and able to be replicated you’ll hear about it.

The Farmers Market Coalition website hosts the resources and updates  for all the Farmers Market Metrics work, so do check in there for more information.

And if you missed it, here is an account to my first market visit: Hernando Mississippi.

Next: Ruston LA, Williamsburg VA and Takoma Park MD (Crossroads)

Please click on the first photo to view the gallery. My apologies to my Facebook followers who have seen most if not all of these pictures.

Another detractor and another clear need for better data and reporting

The article found here

For those of you who have read my “Big Data, Little Farmers Markets” blog posts linked here, and the Farmers Market Metrics pilots many of us have worked on, you know this is the kind of media that concerns me. I will fully agree that farmers markets have limits to their ability in carrying food equity on their shoulders, although I am not sure that markets ever promised that.

The findings extracted for this article lack necessary context and since the original academic article is behind a paywall, many are left to wonder how closely this piece extrapolated the best ideas from the study. However, I won’t be surprised if this small study did say exactly what has been used here, but I’d hope it made allowances for the small scope of the research and the lack of comparable metrics between community food systems and the industrial retail sector.

Farmers’ markets offered 26.4 fewer fresh produce items, on average, than stores.
Compared to stores, items sold at farmers’ markets were more expensive on average, “even for more commonplace and ‘conventional’ produce.”
Fully 32.8 percent of what farmers’ markets offered was not fresh produce at all, but refined or processed products such as jams, pies, cakes, and cookies.

As those of us know that are working constantly to expand the reach of good food, there has never been a belief among those that run markets that our role was to replace stores, especially the small stores and bodegas likely to be present in many of the boroughs of NYC. Instead, the lever of markets is meant to offer alternatives AND to influence traditional retail by changing everyone’s goals to include health and wealth measures that benefit regional producers, all eaters and the natural world around us.
As far as being more expensive, one might wonder if that the study did not compare the same quality of goods; these price comparisons often compare older produce with less shelf life to just-picked and carefully raised regional goods. I have bought much lettuce this year from a few of my neighboring markets that lasted 3-4 weeks in my refrigerator, which I have never been able to match with the conventional trucked-in produce seen in my lovely little stores that I frequent for many of the staples I need. Additionally, the price comparisons I have conducted or have seen have shown most market goods to be competitively priced or cheaper in season, so this study may need a larger data set or maybe a longer study period.
Generally speaking, refined or processed foods available from cottage producers at a market are markedly different from what is seen in the list of ingredients in most items on a grocery store shelf. Using fruit or vegetable seconds for fresh fruit spread or salsa is common among market vendors and extends the use of regional goods. And of course, balancing one’s diet means allowing for a treat on the table after that good dinner and may actually lead to less junk food later.

And finally, the article does not even consider the positive impacts found in markets for regional producers or neighborhood entrepreneurs; that omission in these type of articles is always a warning to me that we are reading an author who has spent little or no time quantifying the needs of the entire community being served in the market. If you require proof of the need to show the multiple impacts of farmers markets, the author’s curt conclusion should make that need clear:

Sure, they’re a great place to mingle. But as to whether they are a net nutritional plus for the neighborhood, the answer appears to be: Not so much.

(someone needs to introduce this guy to the idea of social determinants of health.)

Even so, as mentioned in those Big Data and FMM posts (a new Big Data post is coming soon), even these weak arguments are still based on data and analysis which means WE need to do a better job as well. It’s high time that we started to publish regular reports from the front lines of farmers markets, CSAs and other food and civic projects that use our own good data to show the impact that we are making everywhere rather than just keep rebutting these viral pieces that offer incomplete or inaccurate snapshots.

Food Stamp Subsidies for Junk Food Makers, Big Box Retailers, and Banks?

As 2012 Farm Bill debate rages in Congress, a new investigative report demands SNAP program transparency

Oakland, CA, June 12, 2012 — Are food stamps lining the pockets of the nation’s wealthiest corporations instead of closing the hunger gap in the United States? Why does Walmart benefit from more than $200 million in annual food stamp purchases in Oklahoma alone? Why does one bank, J.P. Morgan Chase, hold exclusive contracts in 24 states to administer public benefits?

These are a few of the questions explored in a new report called: “Food Stamps, Follow the Money: Are Corporations Profiting from Hungry Americans?” from Michele Simon, president of Eat Drink Politics, a watchdog consulting group. This first-of-its kind investigation details how the food stamp program—originally designed to help farmers and those in need—lines the pockets of junk food makers, food retailers, and banks.

Right now, Congress is debating the farm bill, including significant cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). Much attention has focused on how agricultural subsidies fuel our cheap, unhealthy food supply. In reality, the largest and most overlooked taxpayer subsidy to the food industry is SNAP, which comprised two-thirds of the farm bill budget in 2008.

“Michele Simon’s well-researched, credible investigation breaks new ground and exposes who else stands to gain from the government’s largest food assistance program,” said New York University Professor Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics. “While reauthorizing the farm bill, Congress needs to make sure that the poor get their fair share of SNAP benefits,” she added.

Food Stamps, Follow the Money examines what we know and don’t know about how much the food industry and large banks benefit from a tax-payer program that has grown to $78 billion in 2011, up from $30 billion just four years earlier, and projected to increase further due to current economic conditions.

“Transparency should be mandatory. The people have a right to know where our money is going, plain and simple,” said Anthony Smukall, a SNAP participant living in Buffalo, New York. He says his fellow residents are “facing cuts year after year, with no sustainable jobs to be able to get off of programs such as SNAP.” Smukall added, “J.P. Morgan is shaking state pockets, which then rolls down to every tax paying citizen. I am disgusted with the numbers in this report. If people knew how such programs were run, and how money is taken in by some of the world’s conglomerates, there would be outrage on a grand scale.”

As the largest government-funded agriculture program in the nation, SNAP presents a tremendous opportunity to help tens of millions of Americans be better nourished and to reshape our food system in a positive way. SNAP dollars now represent more than 10 percent of all grocery store purchases.

“Every year, tens of billions of SNAP dollars are propping up corporations that are exploiting their workers and producing foods that are making America sick,” said Andy Fisher, founder and former executive director of the Community Food Security Coalition, who is currently writing a book about the anti-hunger movement. “It’s high time we stopped this madness, and returned the food stamp program to its original purpose: providing needy Americans healthy real food grown by farmers,” he added.

“I hope Congress does not cut SNAP. Food prices have been skyrocketing while salaries remain unchanged, and many people I know have two jobs to try to make ends meet,” said Jennifer L., a SNAP participant living in Massachusetts. “As a single mom who has only recently re-entered the workforce, the SNAP assistance I receive makes a huge difference in my ability to support my children,” she added. “I am in favor of making retailers’ and banks’ information regarding SNAP public. What are they hiding?”

Food Stamps, Follow the Money offers several recommendations on how to improve SNAP in order to maximize government benefits for those in need. These include:

· Congress should maintain SNAP funding in this time of need for millions of Americans;

· Congress should require collection and disclosure of SNAP product purchase data, retailer redemptions, and national data on bank fees;

· USDA should evaluate state EBT contracts to determine if banks are taking undue advantage of taxpayer funds.

“Congress should make SNAP more transparent by mandating accurate tracking of SNAP expenditures. Why should only the likes of Walmart, Coca-Cola, and J.P. Morgan know how many billions of our tax dollars are spent each year?” said Ms. Simon.

Download report here

About: Michele Simon is a public health lawyer specializing in industry marketing and lobbying tactics. She is president of Eat Drink Politics, a consulting group that helps advocates counter corporate tactics and advance food and alcohol policy. http://www.eatdrinkpolitics.com Twitter: @MicheleRSimon

Ohio Valley Maple Syrup Production Starts to Flow Again-Belt Magazine

Northeastern states like Vermont, New York and Maine produce the vast majority of American maple syrup. Ohio produces far less, but still consistently ranks among the top maple-producing states in the country, with 708 producers reporting in the last agriculture census. (Experts say there are likely far more small-scale producers, since they are less likely to be counted in official data. All that makes tracking maple production a particular challenge.)

West Virginian producers are building an agritourism economy around the novelty of the seasonal crop. And producers in Kentucky are just beginning to explore how big maple could be. Shad Baker, the agriculture extension agent in Letcher County, Kentucky, was always looking for ways to make the best of eastern Kentucky’s hilly, forested terrain. He knew that agriculture in Letcher County would never be large-scale, high-volume production, but rather multiple niche crops that didn’t need much flat land.

“My mom worked in the mines,” Baker said, “And we had this old mining sticker that said, ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.’ Well, maple syrup is a great example of a bird in the hand.”

Although Kentucky and West Virginia are not traditional maple country, the particularities of the landscape make the crop an unlikely fit. The steep grade means there’s no need for the costly vacuum systems often used in more traditional maple states like Vermont and New York.

Sap flows when the days are warm and the nights are cool, so Kentucky and West Virginia have a longer production season and more frequent freeze-thaw cycles. And, Baker said, maples release sap in January and February, a time when a small farm operation wouldn’t traditionally be able to turn a profit.

Tapping into Tradition

Lexicon of the commmunity food movement

It was suggested last week that I might do a talk for adult literacy providers about how food organizing connects to their work. I began to think about what I would frame such a talk, possibly focusing on how food organizers are working from the social determinants framework to understand the many barriers that restrict our neighbors from adopting healthy living strategies, just as those providers must do when working with their clients. But then I realized I needed to first discuss how the terms of the Direct-To-Consumer (DTC) sector can be a barrier to new users, yet how it is still important that we have our own terms. So I went to The Lexicon of Food for some crowd-sourced definitions, to the USDA site,  to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Community Commons for their definitions of the types of outlets or initiatives we use. I will add more definitions in later posts and also would love to hear any refinement that you think mine need.

Community supported agriculture (CSA): An up-front investment by a consumer into a farm that is “paid back” by that farm with a share of those goods during the harvest season(s). To me, this term is an example that desperately needs to be updated or at least specific types of CSAs clustered and named. After all, the name does not really tell you anything; it does not indicate they are outlets or even that they are part of direct to consumer channels. As a matter of fact, it really should be the name for ALL of the community food movement work! No wonder it is used to describe so many types of activities….

The original concept was that through buying a CSA membership, one entered into a partnership with a nearby farm and this cash infusion allows the farmer to pay for seed, water, equipment, and labor early in the season when farm expenses are high and farm income is low. I have had the great luck of touring the first CSA in the US (Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts) some years back and hearing the story and the collaboration that made it a CSA. I think that story and others like it should be a bigger part of the newly named types as it reflects its simple and elegant idea to directly support farmers through a most meaningful connection to individual neighbors and even a mutual dependency that is likely the most transformative for both producers and eaters among DTC outlets. 

The USDA definition: A farm or network/association of multiple farms that offer consumers regular (usually weekly) deliveries of locally-grown farm products during one or more harvest season(s) on a subscription or membership basis. 

-I think it is vital that within the definition of a CSA, it is understood that the funds are given directly to farmers, which makes it different than a market box (see below). What is also needed is shorthand to define and describe the customer interaction as CSAs now often include the delivery of the goods to a “hub” location where a local business or a CSA subscriber manages the handoff to the shareholders, more often called members. In previous iterations, on-farm pickup and quite often actual volunteer hours by members was expected by most CSA farms, but that is a rare occurrence now. Simon Huntley of Small Farms Central has clearly laid out a definition and possible future solutions for the CSA community here.

farmers markets: Since the 1970s, this term has been defined by farmers, organizers, and communities as a regularly occurring event where regionally-produced farm goods are sold directly by those who made or foraged the items. in 2018, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) had 8,717 farmers markets in their directory.

The apostrophe that once was used for this term has been largely dropped off as more communities organize them for a multitude of reasons and hoped-for outcomes, thereby sharing “ownership” of the market with the vendors. Like CSAs, the name is misused by some who are not offering the same direct relationship between the grower and the buyer, which is a purpose that is core to the mission of the majority of farmers markets. Some states have added definitions to their statutes in order to stomp out these fake markets. Like  CSAs, I think that markets need to make the case more clearly that they are organized* and are meant to address local conditions in farming, in economic sovereignty and in civic engagement. 

  • Recently, someone at USDA said to me, “As far as I can tell, the only characteristic that is shared across all farmers markets is that they are organized.” That struck me as quite true and yet it also struck me later that it may be the single characteristic least known or little understood about markets among consumers, potential stakeholders and sometimes even farmers.

It is possible that other iterations of markets may crop up, such as a version for intermediate buyers only (specialty stores, restaurant chefs) who need case prices and quantities that may be difficult to get through farmers markets as they are designed presently. If they do begin to crop up, it is possible that the market organization may become a facilitator not only in the design and management of the market itself but could offer a single invoicing system for all of the sales and then reimburse farmers more quickly. Those are likely to still be known as farmers markets, but may need an added descriptor such as a “by-the-case farmers market.” In those cases, the direct relationship between the buyer and the producer is still maintained but may need an added certification entity to oversee the delivery and marketing of those goods once the sale has been completed. 

In the most recent FMPP/LFPP cycle, my organization Farmers Market Coalition partnered with technology platform Farmspread to refine one such process where Local Food Authorities (LFAs) such as “grown here” or “buy fresh buy local” chapters would add to their promotion of local goods with an authentication of those who use the term local by first building  consensus on what local really means and then overseeing the certification of both local buyers and sellers, according to their level of agreement. Chapters are the most obvious form of LFAs- and farmers markets are included in most chapters – but farmers markets on their own may also be directly considered LFAs.

farm stand: also known as a roadside stand usually managed by a single farm business or maybe neighboring farms often in a set location with either some shelving and overhead protection or maybe a gravel space for vehicles. Unfortunately, in many states, a reseller of goods can use the term even if nothing is produced locally. 

In California, the definition has been refined and expanded and it seems that there are two kinds of farm stands: 1) a farm stand that does NOT sell value-added goods is now defined as a “field retail stand” and one that does sell value-added goods (including bottled water) is what is now known as a “retail food facility.”

Field retail stands are restricted to selling whole produce and shell eggs grown by the producer on or near the site, exempt from standard wholesale size and pack requirements. These traditional field stands are exempt from California Health and Safety Code, as long as they adhere to the previous set of rules.

Farm stands that make use of these new regulations—and sell anything other than fresh, farm-produced fruits, vegetables, nuts and shell eggs—are considered “retail food facilities,” and are therefore regulated by California Health and Safety Code. But requirements for farm stands are much less strict than those for most retail food facilities.

Food desert: The CDC defines this as areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet. More often these days, you see Low Access Areas or Low Supermarket Access used instead. To qualify as a “low-access community,” at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).

-Note: A few years back, researchers at Tulane University here in our swampy New Orleans decided that the term “food swamp” was apter than food desert. Here is their explanation: “The caloric imbalance that leads to obesity is, of course, an issue about entire diets, not specific foods.  But the extensive amount of energy-dense offerings available at these venues may, in fact, inundate, or swamp out, what relatively few healthy choice foods there are.  Thus, we suggest that a more useful metaphor to be used is ‘food swamps‘ rather than food deserts.”

food hub: USDA definition: Offering a combination of aggregation, distribution, and marketing services at an affordable price, food hubs make it possible for many producers to gain entry into new larger-volume markets that boost their income and provide them with opportunities for scaling up production.

I’d add to that food hubs seem to have two characteristics in that they are always a physical location- and therefore have a chance for investment by private and public funders – and that they act as at least one or more of these things: an aggregator space for food items, an incubator for businesses and/or as a marketing hub or all of those and more. Therefore, the reality is there is a wide difference between food hubs.

I’d also like to raise the theory that the food hub movement was begun with such gusto because farmers markets have taken a long time to “professionalize” (don’t be defensive as I don’t mean markets are unprofessional, just that market organizations have not been able to attract long-range support for their staffing and structure needs and so many have remained in “start up mode” for years, even decades);  since investors have been unable to collect data to assess the impacts of farmers markets and/or because market organizations have limited management structures, food hubs were prioritized in some areas and by some funders.

Additionally, as many of you know, I assess the difference between local food efforts and regional food systems as being 1) lack of production infrastructure and 2) lack of policy advocacy by network leaders and 3) lack of attention to the specific needs of different groups of buyers, such as family table shoppers versus specialty store/bistro restaurants or even pallet wholesale buyers. That regional approach is where food hubs have done some serious work and where market organizations might want to stick a toe in the water so to speak.

I think a meeting of minds of food hubs and markets is overdue and in some cases might even be merged into one entity.

market box: An aggregated collection of seasonal items offered weekly or at least regularly either through a subscription through a farm or through the sales of an organization such as a market. The box supports sales for local farmers and often also a percentage is shared with the entity who manages the sales and the pickups. Often mislabeled as a CSA, but able to include new users for a shorter period of time and can be used to incentivize vendors at a “food security” market where less shoppers attend, but nearby institutions can accelerate the sales with a weekly markert box from the vendors. I first saw this idea in Los Angeles at one of SEE-LA’s markets which actually accelerated my organization’s thinking around crafting a market typology that continues to this day among some researchers. 

mobile market: I had a difficult time finding a definition of this, but did find a good one on Community Commons: Mobile markets are typically renovated trucks or trailers that carry fresh and healthy foods into urban communities. A mobile market may visit a neighborhood once a week or a few times a month on a set schedule. Many mobile markets accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, payments or have subsidies that make the food affordable to people with little or no income.

The mobile market term is one that I see loosely applied to many types of initiatives and often used interchangeably with farmers markets. Obviously, the mobile market shares some characteristics with the usual definition of farmers markets, including “pop up” locations, some collective authority of what is allowed, being organized  and the ability to use SNAP or other cards to purchase goods through one central terminal. What is less universal about mobile markets versus farmers markets is the localness of the food purchased and the type of programming on market day to increase intellectual capital and social cohesion.  Still, the mobile markets may offer those two previous points so as it stands today, the main difference between farmers markets and mobile markets is the direct part: producers are not present during the transactions of the mobile market.

Interestingly, the page that I accessed for this definition has many examples on it, but almost all of those links are broken, with many of those initiatives seemingly being redesigned or shelved for now.  One reason for the difficulty in maintaining mobile markets seems to be the ongoing funding for mobile markets, but also that some mobile marksts do their best to evolve into farmers markets or farm stands as soon as possible. 

By the way, this was my analysis when my organization attempted to collaboratively design one such mobile market after the 2005 levee breaks in New Orleans. 

 

Okay, I’m stopping here. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

More to come…..