Saturday, June 27, 2009

Sourcery: Transparency for Stuff

Today I want to talk to you about stuff. Real stuff, products you buy and use every day in life. In specific I want to talk about where it comes from and how its made. Let's start this off with a little exercise.

Look around you and identify/pick up something in your proximity. In my case it's a wireless USB mouse. If it's name-brand, then you should be able to identify the company that made it with relative ease. My mouse is made by Logitech, a company whose products I've traditionally trusted but recently I've become frustrated with. Now for some this name-brand identification is enough, but let's dig deeper. If your object contains more than one piece, its fair to say that someone made those pieces. Its also fair to assume that in a complex object like a wireless mouse, that the pieces were made by different companies, using different materials and methods. In turn the materials used to make these components While we can know this truth, for most this is where our knowledge ends. for instance, I don't know who made the plastic casing on my mouse, or even what its made out of. Similarly, I don't know anything about the methods used to make these pieces, what company made them, and what their practices as a company might be. For all I know, I'm using a mouse that is powered by the soul of a baby seal clubbed over the head with a rod of plutonium. While I certainly hope this is hyperbole, it illustrates my point.

Shouldn't we, in a world of connected and relational data, be able to easily discover what is in our products so that we can buy intelligently? As a informed and concerned consumer I would love to be able to know with relative confidence where everything in my mouse has come from, whether it contains any materials I would rather avoid, and that it is indeed radioactive-baby-seal free. For granola-munching progressives like myself there are obvious advantages to this system, as it allows people to truly see what goes into the making of the things they buy should they chose to do so. However this kind of system would be of utility of anyone concerned about the how, what, and where. For example, informed parents would be far less likely to buy a product for their child if they knew that one of the manufacturers of one of the components used a chemical in the process that has been clinically proven to negatively impact children. Someone with hometown pride may favor a one product over another if they knew that it contained a component made in their home town. This concept may seem like a bit of a stretch, but its worth noting that there are several forward thinking companies which have already begun self-reporting on their sourcing. Their logic is that by being transparent to their customers, they not only hold themselves accountable as to what goes into their products, but also establish a trusted relationship with customers who will in turn reward them with brand loyalty.

So what would this system (lets call it Sourcery, because it makes me feel clever) look like Clearly this is too much data for one company to maintain with any semblence of agility or accuracy. A single edition of such a report would take years to compile and would be woefully out of date from its release date onward. So instead I look towards the Wikipedia model. Like Wikipedia, Sourcery has to be agile and decentralized, self-editing, and contain a tolerable level of credibility. Entries in Sourcery would be divided into three categories: products, companies, and materials. Product entries would list materials used in their manufacture, other sub-component products, and the company of manufacture. Company entries would contain a list of products produced by the company. Material entries would contain basic information on the properties of the material, and a description of how the material is created. Sourcery should be open enough that anyone willing to contribute knowledge can, but also allow companies the ability to officially confirm and validate the information contained on entries pertaining to their products. Herein lies the largest challenge of the entire system. Individuals should have the power to openly participate, as with Wikipedia, yet in order to be fair the system must allow companies to differentiate between factual information and baseless claims. At the same time, companies must be limited in their power to censure information, otherwise the system completely loses its utility. Perhaps the method lies in differentiating the powers of users and company representatives. Anyone can sign up to edit the articles, thus allowing the company the same level of access as everyone else. Companies can sign up for a official representative account, which adds the power to tag various information as officially confirmed or contested by the company. The official account would not allow for the deletion or wholesale censoring of information, but would instead simply allow for the company to add its position to any claims contained in regards to their products. Occasionally a company will want to protect its intellectual property, especially when it comes to proprietary materials. They should be allowed to do this, but with the understanding that the more which is withheld, the less inherent trust will be placed in the product.

Another critical component of Sourcery should be the linking of materials and companies to related data. For example, I should be able to see clinical studies related to a material, or a report on human rights conditions at a company. This is where the true usefulness of Sourcery would really reside. Without it, I may know a product contains a certain material, but without the context that this is something I may want to avoid the system loses its meaning. With it, it creates a climate where through disclosure, companies can be petitioned to make their products safer/better/more sustainable. Companies that would fight against such a change would inherently be at a disadvantage when competing against companies with less qualms about being honest with their customers. A feature that would certainly be a technical challenge to create, but a boon to utility would be ability to extract high level summaries. The feature would take a request for a summary on a product based on search parameters and dig through the web of sourcing data and return a summary based on anything matching the parameters. For example, lets say I want to know if anything in my mouse was made by a certain company, or made in a certain country. Doing this search by hand would take some time, but could be easily discovered by the feature and returned quickly. This functionality could lead to a whole new dimension of comparison shopping, allowing consumers to quickly get a summary on several similar products and make a decision accordingly.

Undoubtedly, if Sourcery was ever created, there would be those who would decry it as unfair, but to my mind it is the essence of fairness. When we buy a product, we are in essence voting for a supply chain and a method of production which we may or may not actually desire or approve of. By being informed, we can make better choices, what ever those choices may be.


Mister Tupper said...

Alan, if you can come up with it the tech, i am your first investor.


Alan Tupper said...

@ Jordan: Thanks! Not sure I'm the guy to really see this one through, but the vote of confidence is welcome! P.S. How's life?

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