In the Fight Against Hunger, Technology Brings Power to the People
As technology changes public access to data, the power for change is shifting from large organizations into the hands of the people.
reprinted from USA Today/Media Planet article published September 16, 2016
There is more than enough food produced to feed everyone alive today. Yet access to nutritious food is a challenge everywhere and depends on getting every citizen involved, not just large organizations. Technology is helping to democratize and distribute the job of tackling the problem of hunger in America and around the world.
One of the hardest problems is the difficulty of gaining real-time insight into food prices and shortages. Enter technology. We no longer have to rely on professional inspectors slowly collecting information face-to-face. The UN World Food Programme, which provides food assistance to eighty million people each year, together with Nielsen is conducting mobile phone surveys in 15 countries (with plans to expand to thirty), asking people by voice and text about what they are eating. Formerly blank maps are now filled in with information provided quickly and directly by the most affected people, making it easy to prioritize the allocation of resources.
Technology helps the information flow in both directions, enabling those in need to reach out, but also to become more effective at helping themselves. The Indian Ministry of Agriculture, in collaboration with Reuters Market Light, provides information services in 9 Indian languages to 1.4 million registered farmers in 50,000 villages across 17 Indian states via text and voice messages.
New open data laws and policies that encourage more transparent publication of public information complement data collection and dissemination technologies such as phones and tablets. 70 countries and hundreds of regions and cities have adopted open data policies, which guarantee that the information these public institutions collect be available for free use by the public. As a result, there are millions of open datasets now online on websites such as the Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX), which hosts 4,000 datasets such as country-by-country stats on food prices and undernourishment around the world.
Companies are compiling and sharing data to combat food insecurity, too. Anyone can dig into the data on the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) platform, a data collaborative where three hundred private and public partners are sharing information.
Importantly, this vast quantity of open data is available to anyone, not only to governments. As a result, large and small entrepreneurs are able to create new apps and programs to combat food insecurity, such as Plantwise, which uses government data to offer a knowledge bank and run “plant clinics” that help farmers lose less of what they grow to pests. Google uses open government data to show people the location of farmers markets near their homes.
Students, too, can learn to play a role. For the second summer in a row, the Governance Lab at New York University, in partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), mounted a two-week open data summer camp for forty middle and high school students. The next generation of problem solvers is learning new data science skills by working on food safety and other projects using USDA open data.
Ultimately, technology enables greater communication and collaboration among the public, social service organizations, restaurants, farmers and other food producers who must work together to avoid food crises. The European Food Safety Authority in Italy has begun exploring how to use Internet-based collaboration (often called citizen science or crowdsourcing) to get more people involved in food and feed risk assessment.
In the United States, 40% of the food produced here is wasted, and yet 1in 4 American children (and 1 in 6 adults) remain food insecure, according to the Rockefeller Foundation. Copia, a San Francisco based smartphone app facilitates donations and deliveries of those with excess food in six cities in the Bay Area. Zero Percent in Chicago similarly attacks the distribution problem by connecting restaurants to charities to donate their excess food. Full Harvest is a tech platform that facilitates the selling of surplus produce that otherwise would not have a market.
Prize-backed challenges create the incentives for more people to collaborate online and get involved in the fight against hunger. The University of California at Davis is challenging students to win a $1000 prize by creating a three-minute video about food insecurity in honor of World Food Day. The Rockefeller Foundation’s YieldWise program is a $130 million global initiative to combat food insecurity that offers a million-dollar prize to those who can discover ways to reduce spoilage and increase the shelf life of cassava.
Some people may skeptical about their power to institute political change in a bureaucratic world. But if power, as defined by British philosopher Bertrand Russell, is “the ability to produce intended effects,” then technology– especially in data sharing and collaboration — can help us gain power in the fight against hunger, even in the absence of political reform.