In February, CivSource reported on an effort by engineer Philippe Plagnol to open up the tracking and supply chain data contained in the barcodes on consumer products. Since then, Product Open Data (POD) has garnered the attention of the French government, private sector partners and the GS1, the organization responsible for creating and housing data on each unique barcode. In this interview, we talk to Dr. Mark Harrison, Director of the Auto-ID Lab at the University of Cambridge, who works with the GS1 and recently started looking at projects like POD in an effort to bring more openness to GS1.
“I have been involved as a researcher in the University of Cambridge for the last 12 years working with GS1 in the development of technical standards,” Harrison explains. “We became interested in the consumer-facing use of this data, some of this is in response to forthcoming regulation in the EU on food label disclosures.”
The GS1 is responsible for creating and housing data on all of the GTIN codes used on consumer products. These codes are embedded in the barcodes that mark each product. Consumers recognize barcodes as the information that stores run through price scanners at checkout, but before that, the GS1 generates a unique number, this serves as a record locator for those products and provides information starting with its creation and moving to when it finally ends up on the store shelf. For consumers with dietary restrictions, or those who practice ethical consumerism, being able to track an item from start to finish is valuable.
Right now, consumers only gave label information that product manufacturers include, either voluntarily or in line with labelling regulations. The European Union requires significantly more disclosure on food labels right now, and is moving to require even more. “The EU wants consumers to see the same information online that they would see if they picked up the product in the store,” Harrison says.
Efforts in the United States to let consumers know what exactly is in the products they buy have been stymied by food companies and big producers like Monsanto. This reality, makes work like Open Food Facts, and POD more important. Harrison is working with the GS1 to find ways to make it easier for manufacturers to disclose this information and further the spirit of laws like those in the EU that aim for truth in labelling.
“The data isn’t yet readily available in a structured format from the manufacturers so a lot of this currently relies on enthusiastic amateurs like Philippe, who are crowdsourcing transcriptions, but the idea is that we develop the standards to make it easy for manufacturers to send their data in a standard format and we will also look at updating GS1 standards accordingly.”
There is some hope that this could happen. According to Harrison, “GS1 recently has a new CTO, Dr. Steve Bratt, previously with the W3C, and this has brought new blood into GS1 and challenged them on their thinking.” To that end, they are starting to work on some mobile applications, and other proofs of concept before new laws in the EU come into effect. This may have some overlap into US markets, where efforts have all but stalled out.
“What we’re trying to do with GS1 Digital is create a whole new ecosystem around products before and after the point of sale. One example would be a mobile application for people who have particular allergies who can scan products to check for allergies and can be advised whether the product is safe for them – or advised of safer alternatives.”
“You get the real benefit when all the data is linked together and cross referenced between these different resources like POD or Open Food Facts and GS1,” Harrison says.