The Blog

Yes We Can (Compare Apples to Oranges)!

A new breed of application is taking government data, repackaging it into a format that human beings can understand, and delivering it to people at a time when they can act on the information.
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Six months ago -- in internet-time, "the Late Pleistocene" back when Google Wave roamed the Earth -- people were decrying the immature state of Gov 2.0. In mid-March, Matt Rosenberg wrote an article for Social Capital Review responding to a post by Mark Drapeau that called for apps based on government data that had actual utility in people's lives. My friends, we are the very dawn of the Holocene.

The herald of the new epoch is John Tozzi, whose article "Gov 2.0: The Next Internet Boom," sent shock-waves into Gov 2.0 sites' plate tectonics. The application Tozzi wrote about was See Click Fix (which I wrote about here). See Click Fix allows people to help government identify problems, track the government's activities in fixing the problems, and now has a community feature that enables people to self-organize and solve their own issues. But a new business model is emerging that extends the capabilities of Gov 2.0 into an entirely new area.

A new breed of application is taking the government data, repackaging it into a format that human beings (rather than spreadsheets) can understand, and delivering it to people at a time when they can act on the information. Case in point: we can now compare apples to oranges when we are standing in the produce section of our local grocery store.

Even now, the process isn't seamless, and it's far from complete. But I can think of at least six interests that should want me to compare apples and oranges, and have enough of a stake to develop an single app that lets me do so:

  • Farmers -- Apple growers want to promote apples; orange growers to promote oranges.
  • Farmers' Communities -- Lakeland, FL, depends on orange growers for tax revenue; the more people know about oranges' nutrition, the more oranges they'll buy, and the fewer teachers layoffs Lakeland will face.
  • Safeway -- Safeway is spending a ton of money redesigning their stores in DC to compete with Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and Giant. A branded mobile app that made shopping easier would encourage me to come to Safeway. Likewise, they could add the app as a component to their online store.
  • Application Developers -- I'll pay for a good app.
  • My Health Insurance Company -- I'll keep paying my premiums regardless, but I'll use far fewer services if I'm healthy, and I'll stay healthier if I understand that apples lack some amino acids and no selenium to speak of, so I'll want to compliment them with some nice, salty anchovies.
  • My federal government -- There are actually two reasons why the government wants to me know how nutritious apples are. The first is to justify their research into how nutritious apples are. The second is akin to the health insurance company: I generate more tax revenue and consume fewer government services if I'm healthy and working.

None of these care for me, Gadi Ben-Yehuda. They're all looking out for themselves and their interests, which is great; the fact that I benefit from their activities is the soul of capitalism. And capitalism spurs entrepreneurs to make better tools that people are willing to pay for. Right now, the tools that let us compare apples to oranges are disparate, clunky, and free. once they're merged and streamlines, we are likely to have to pay for them, and I'll be one of the first to do so.

Here is the process as it stands now, calling out for a simple, elegant solution:

Let's not even talk about comparing Triscuits vs. Wheat Thins. Let's stick strictly to apples vs. oranges. And let's say that you want that information not when you're at home doing a million other things, but when you're in the store, standing in front of piles of fruit and cans of dry roasted nuts.

The first step, of course, is publishing the nutritional information of each food. That's the province of the US Department of Agriculture. (Try looking up the nutritional information for a whole grapefruit, one of my favorites. Scientific name, Citrus paradisi, of course!).

For most people, the numbers the USDA gives isn't really a great help. So grapefruit has 310 kiloJoules of energy? Um, ok? Even for those minerals that we know we need, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, it's hard to discern if grapefruit is a better choice than oranges. Or apples. Then along comes the second tool: Self Magazines' Nutritional Data site.

The site offers a free suite of tools that helps put the USDA's information into a visual presentation that makes sense and allows users to compare apples to oranges (right). Their takes a lot of data (amounts of follate, vitamins, water, calories, fats, etc,) and applies a unique analytical model to help us understand the data. That's the first place where the private sector stands to make its contribution, and hence its profit.

Now that we have the information, however, we still need a way to access it in our grocery stores. And that way is called Sticky Bits. Launched in March, just a short time after Matt Rosenberg filed his article, Sticky Bits allows people to scan a bar code and attach information to it (read Tech Crunch's full review). When other people scan the bar code, they will be able to access that information on their phone. Distribution of the information is the second place that the private sector can make a contribution (and hence more profits).

In an ideal world, these components would be merged into a single tool, and I'd happily pay for that. Who do we need to get into a single room to make that happen?