Linked Data a Recipe for Food?

new_optimist_logoI’ve just watched a short interview with Dr Chris Brewster, of Aston Business School.  Chris is a Semantic Web and Linked Data specialist, but he was attending an event organised by the New Optimists Forum to look at Food & Cities – possible futures for Birmingham in 2050.

What relevance does Linked Data have for a City’s food supply you may ask.  As Chris put it:

We live in a world where the agri-food supply chain, from producer all the way through to final consumer, is extremely inefficient in the flow of knowledge.  It is very good at delivering food to your table but we don’t know where it comes from, what it’s history is.  That has great implication in various scenarios, for example when there are food emergencies, e colli, things of that sort.

My vision is with the application of Semantic Web and Linked Data technologies along the food supply chain, it will make it easier for all actors along there to know more about where their food comes from and where their food goes.  This will also create opportunities for new business models where local food will be more easily integrated in to the overall consumption patters of local communities.

This is a vision that can be applied to many of our traditional supply chains.  Industries have become very efficient at producing, building, and delivering often very complex things to customers and consumers, but only the thing travels along the chain, it is not accompanied by information about the thing, other than what you may find on a label or delivery note.  These supply chains are highly tuned processes that the logisticians will tell you have had most every drop of efficiency squeezed out of them already.  Information about all aspects of and steps within a chain could possibly allow parts of the chain to react, and possibly apply some local agility, feedback, and previously hidden efficiencies.

Another example of a traditional chain that exhibits an, on the surface, poor information supply chain is sustainable wood supply.  As covered by the BBC You&Yours radio program today (about 43 minutes in), coincidentally within minutes of me watching Dr Brewster.

fsc-logo3The Forest Stewardship Council has had a problem where one of their producers had part of their license revoked but apparently still applied the FSC label on the wood they were shipping.  Some of this wood travelled through the supply chain and was unwittingly displayed on UK retailers shelves as certified sustainable wood.  Listening to the FSC representative it was clear that if an integrated information supply network had been available, the chances of this happening would have been decreased, or at least it being identified sooner.

All very well, but why Linked Data?

One of the characteristics of supply chains it that they tend to deal with many differing organisations engaged in many differing processes – cultivation, packing, assembly, manufacture, shipping, distribution, retailing, etc.  Traditionally the computerisation of information flow between differing organisations and their differing systems and procedures has been a difficult nut to crack.  Getting all the players to agree and conform is an almost impossible task.  One of the many benefits of Linked Data is the ability to extract data from disparate sources describing different things and aggregate them together.  Yes you need some loose coordination between the parties around, identification of concepts etc., but you do not need to enforce a regimented vanilla system everywhere.

The automotive industry have already hooked in on this to address the problem of disseminating the mass of information around models of cars and their options.  There was a great panel on the 2nd day of the Semantic Tech and Business Conference in Berlin last month:

My takeaway from the panel: Here is an industry that pragmatically picked up a technology that can not only solve it’s problems but also can enable it to take innovative steps, not only for individual company competitive advantage but also to move the industry forward in it’s dealings with its supply/value chain and customers.  However, they are also looking more broadly and openly to for instance make data publicly available which will enhance the used car market.

So back to food.  The local food part of Dr Brewster’s new business model vision stems from the fact it should easier for a local producer to broadcast availability of their produce to the world.  Similarly, it should be easier for a retailer to tune in to that information in an agile way and not only become aware of the produce but also be linked to information about the supplier.

kasabi-foodFood and Linked Data is also something the team at Kasabi have been focussing in on recently.  Because of the Linked Data infrastructure underpinning the Kasabi Data Marketplace, they have been able to produce an aggregate Food dataset initially from BBC and Foodista.

As the dataset is updated, the Data Team will broaden the sources of food data, and increase the data quality for those passionate about food. They’ll be adding resources and improving the links between them to include things like: chefs, diets, seasonality information, and more.

Food aims to answer questions such as:

  • I fancy cooking something with “X”, but I don’t like “Y” what shall I cook?
  • I am pregnant and vegan, what should I prepare for dinner?

Ambitiously, it could also provide data to be used to aid the invention of new recipes based on the co-occurrence of ingredients.

Answering questions like how can I create something new from what I have is one of those difficult to measure yet nevertheless very apparent benefits of using Linked Data techniques and technologies.

It is very easy to imagine the [Linked Data] enhanced food supply chain of Chris’ vision integrated/aggregated with an evolved Kasabi Food dataset answering questions such as “what can I make for dinner which is wheat-free, contains ingredients grown locally that are available from the local major-chain-supermarket which has disabled parking bays?”.

A bit utopian I know, but what differs today from the similar visions that accompanied Tim Berners-Lees original Semantic Web descriptions is that folks like those in the automotive industry and at Kasabi are demonstrating bits of it already.

Bee on plate image from Kasabi.
Declaration I am a shareholder of Kasabi parent company Talis.
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