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 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, to participate both sectors must respond immediately to any trends or innovations. This can be good or bad.
 (The intersection of public and private is what the non-profit sector is supposed to partly oversee 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.)
 Think of how that grocery store loyalty card transmits information about what, when and where customers purchase goods. Or giving citizens the 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, 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 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

Experience helps restaurant managers stick with local foods

In a study of the cost and benefits of purchasing local foods in restaurants, managers and chefs indicated that certain actions of local food producers stand out as reasons why they continue to buy local foods. For instance, managers said that a local farmer’s or producer’s response time — the time it took a business to respond and process an order — was more important than delivery time — how long it takes to actually receive the goods — as a factor when they considered buying local food products.
Managers did not seem to think food safety was an issue with handling local food.
Clear labeling is another selling point for restaurant managers who are purchasing foods in grocery stores and markets. The labels should be accurate and easy to read, containing specifications including weight, date and product details, for example, according to Sharma, who worked with Joonho Moon, doctoral student in hospitality management, Penn State, and Catherine Strohbehn, state extension specialist and adjunct professor in apparel, events and hospitality management, Iowa State University.

Amit Sharma, Joonho Moon, Catherine Strohbehn. Restaurant’s decision to purchase local foods: Influence of value chain activities. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 2014; 39: 130 DOI: 10.1016/j.ijhm.2014.01.009

Organic Living at the Gardens of Eagan

The link at the bottom of this post is to an extraordinary book excerpt about the physical and emotional effects of a hailstorm by the owners of one of the first certified organic farms in the Midwest. As a market organizer that has been through my share of disaster and recovery spells, I can tell you that concern and awareness quickly fades among those not immediately affected long before the producers actually completely recover. You can see that in the annoyance on shoppers faces two or more seasons later when they inquire about their favorite products and are told that the farm is not ready to return. You can see the lack of empathy on legislators faces when they are asked what is to be done for small family farms or boats to help them rebuild. Truly, the aftermath of any disaster on any community food production needs to be shared more widely and for longer periods than it is usually.

In this passage from her book, the farmer explains beautifully what happens both to the people and the plants of her farm; the depth of emotion is naked and exposed:
This is just wrong. June is supposed to be bursting green and lush, the bounty of the universe in full evidence. This is squalor and violence. Instead of spring-fresh, the air is a stench of decay and rot. I can intellectualize. No one is hurt. We won’t starve, go broke, or lose the farm. Many plants will recover. But when I stop distracting myself and notice how I feel, I am vulnerable and exposed, like I have been beaten by a merciless sky and left to survive on my own wits. I know this is just emotion, but I feel completely isolated despite so much support. I look for reality. I know it’s out there somewhere. I can’t see it. I don’t understand the purpose. Maybe there is none. Maybe hail just exists.

Read more:

Organic Living at the Gardens of Eagan – Food – Utne Reader.

The 25% shift

I am just finishing up a commentary for an online magazine in my original home of Cleveland, Ohio and to remember some details, I pulled out the Michael Shuman report “The 25% Shift: The Benefits of Food Localization for Northeast Ohio & How to Realize Them” that he and coauthors Brad Masi and Leslie Schaller completed for the Northeast Ohio food community and its municipal partners. I find it informative and ambitious.

From the summary:
The following study analyzes the impact of the 16-county Northeast Ohio (NEO) region moving a quarter of the way toward fully meeting local demand for food with local production. It suggests that this 25% shift could create 27,664 new jobs, providing work for about one in eight unemployed residents. It could increase annual regional output by $4.2 billion and expand state and local tax collections by $126 million. It could increase the food security of hundreds of thousands of people and reduce near-epidemic levels of obesity and Type-II diabetes. And it could significantly improve air and water quality, lower the region’s carbon footprint, attract tourists, boost local entrepreneurship, and enhance civic pride.
The more than 50 recommendations would be helpful for any food system to review:

25% shift