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Will Hack for Food

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, December 8 2010

Saturday's Food+Tech Hackathon in Manhattan's Soho Haven co-working space.

The International Open Data Hackathon arrived in Manhattan this past Saturday, and this being New York City, perhaps it's no surprise that the subject here was food. Amongst the fifty or so people gathered in the Soho Haven co-working space to hack the American food system were a corporate developer, an NYU grad student, several long-time food activists, and a woman described on the day's wiki as the author of " the most popular blog about cupcakes." The assembled group harvested the Obama administration's Data.gov for food data, dreamt up catchy domain names (more on Groupme.at, for example, below), generally schemed to blend data and some food-system savvy into apps, tools, and websites that would make it easier for more of us in the United States to farm and eat better and smarter.

Saturday was branded the Food+Tech Hackathon and set up as a 12-hour workfest. But in many ways the day was an education. The lesson? It came in two parts. First, that the sudden sprouting of the open data movement in the U.S. makes it possible for us to access more useful knowledge about our food than we've had available in the past. But second, at the present, food-minded hackers seeking good data are, today, often going to be left hungry.

Some of the assembled hackers were, for example, frustrated with the quality of the data they were able to pull from federal resources. And in that, they find a sympathetic ear in Jeanne Holm. Holm is the Chief Knowledge Architect at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who has emerged as Data.gov's chief evangelist within the federal government. "Data.gov is a work in progress," says Holm. "There are some things we're doing fine, and there are some things we need to do differently." Data.gov, an Obama administration flagship project as part of their open government push, is 18-months old. "When it comes to government data, if you're wandering in the desert, and somebody gives you a drink of water, that's great," says Holm of Data.gov's early days. "But pretty soon you want a tall, cool iced tea."

Drew Conway works on Milk Hack.

In one corner of the space, Drew Conway and John Bellone are pounding away on laptops. Conway is a grad student in political science, Bellone a developer for Bloomberg. They met just this morning. But mid-day they've already made considerable progress on Milk Hack, a heat map showing the change over time in the overhead costs that go into milk production, state-by-state. The problem that the app is meant to solve: new farmers sometimes find overhead costs a mystery, which can make making a business plan a scary proposition. But why milk? In large part, explains Conway, because that's the best data from USDA they could find on Data.gov. Broccoli and carrots, for example, was scattered over several disjointed tables.

“It was obvious, at the beginning" says Conway, "that Data.gov was built by people who didn’t plan on using it.”

Over in another set of cubicles, a team is working on the aforementioned Groupme.at, described by one member as "Kickstarter for an entire animal." The idea here is that members of a community could come together to buy "sustainably raised animals directly from the farmers that raise the animals." A third klatch of people is working on a web tool that would help ferret out where there might be a critical mass of people who would like to be part of a Community Supported Agriculture collective, but aren't yet. And a fourth group is building a recommendation engine, partly inspired by Hunch.com, that would help, say, start-up cheesemakers and bread bakers navigate the laws, rules, and regulations that make it kosher for them to sell their wares in, for example, the Brooklyn Flea.

Hovering over that last group is Bob Lewis. Back in the mid-1970s, Lewis co-founded Greenmarket, New York City's chain of farmers markets, and he's now an agriculture official with New York state. Lewis knows local food selling. And in the co-working space he tries some crusty grounding. "There's a lot of reality checks that need to be made," says Lewis, about the enthusiasm he's seeing for blending food and technology together and coming up with a better food system. But, frankly, he seems in awe of what he's witnessing.

Food+Tech Connect's Danielle Gould.

The Food+Tech Hackathon was the brainchild of Danielle Gould, a Brooklynite who found, while working professionally in the field of rooftop greenhouses in New York City, that there wasn't much good data out there on food growing -- what prices growers might expect to get at market, how much a certain way of growing a crop might expect to yield. Gould founded the Food+Tech Connect blog, and found herself connecting with folks like U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra and Michael Pollan; the food writer posts a link to one of her early posts on his own site. But, she says, she noticed that people were willing to share data on Twitter, on Facebook, and elsewhere online when they thought that they would get something for that, even if that only meant casual feedback from other growers.

The idea for Saturday's Food+Tech Hackathon blossomed only last month, says Gould, when she went down to Washington DC for the International Open Government Data Conference, sponsored by the U.S. federal government. Gould describes herself as a bit dismayed of the tone of the conference's start. "The first day, I was very disturbed. They're just pushing data out there," she said. Things improved a bit, she says, as the event rolled along.

Done right, food is a juicy target for human-centric data upgrade. "It's relevant to everyone," says Gould. "Everyone eats everyday." And yet, it's an information-dense field rich with ontologies -- ingredients, weights, measurements, sourcing, nutrition -- that seems to thrive on assumptions and old practices. (Gould sees in Michelle Obama a patron saint of the food data movement. The First Lady's Let's Move project on childhood obesity, and in particular her Apps for Healthy Kids contest, lit a fire, says Gould, under federal efforts to push out high-quality food data.)

The hackathon's keynote is delivered by Dominic DiFranco, a PhD student in computer science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, part of a team working with the Data.gov project at the federal level to introduce semantic web concepts of linked and tagged data into Data.gov. (“That’s our stuff,” says DiFranco, showing me the "Semantic Web" tab on Data.gov.") DiFranco lays out an example of how contextualized data sets could help us know more about what we eat. You might tell the system you're Jewish, he says, and it could spit back at you, "I know pea soup has ham in it, and I know ham is a pig-based food."

But Conway and Bellone, the Milk Hack duo, say that the day has opened their eyes to the notion that the data sets on Data.gov could be a lot easier to find, read, and comment upon. Conway says he subscribes to a school of thought on data use that holds that "the first step is suffering," but he doesn't think that so many people need to suffer. “Hopefully, in the future,” says Conway, “you’ll be able to say, ‘here, I ran through it. If you want to use it, there you go.”

And Holm, Data.gov's evangelist within the Obama administration, largely agrees. "We'd been kicking around the idea of creating discussion forum capabilities for each data set," she says on a call. "It might be overkill. They might go unused. But there should be a place to say, 'hey, there's an error in this table that I've corrected.' Or, 'hey, I've created this great app.'" And this weekend's hackathons, says Holm, provided added inspiration; the data-set specific forums are now slated to roll out on Data.gov next month. Each data set has, by design, 'a data steward' located within each agency whose responsible for that specific chunk of information. "There's a belly button associated with each data set," says Holm, and the owner of that belly button will be called on by the federal government to track the feedback that users have about their data set.

In addition, the new year will see an increased focus on Data.gov for building "communities of practice" around different themes, says Holm. Law and health will roll out in the next few months, followed by ones on climate and education. Energy is on the docket, and others will follow shortly. "And if Danielle gets her way," says Holm with a laugh, "maybe food will be one of them."

As with any hackathon, there's a ready critique to be made that the quick development work being done on site doesn't have much to do real-world challenges. But today's hackathon has found at least one fan in Bob Lewis, the Greenmarket co-founder and state agriculture official. Standing in the middle of the event, Lewis takes a phone call. It's a fellow long-time food activist, says Lewis. "It's not like sex, drugs, and rock and roll," says Lewis into his phone, struggling to explain what he's witnessing here in Soho. "It's like business...and ethics...and."

Scratch that, says Lewis, finally, summing up his judgment of several dozen weekend-sacrificing hackers and activists gathered circa 2010 to turn data into a better food system. "Actually, it is like sex, drugs, and rock and roll..."

Related: "An Open Data Day Bounty"