This is just a sketch of an idea. Help me fill it out.
The elevator pitch
What if you could have an angel on your shoulder that helped you make purchases that reflected your values? We’d all like to vote with our dollars, but complicated corporate structures and global supply chains have made it difficult to keep track of who is doing what.
Smart phones have cameras. Those cameras can read barcodes, thanks to some nifty open source development. Everything in the shops has a barcode. We just need a way to hook up these barcodes to the legions of folks who care enough to tell us the dirty secrets behind the things we buy.
Let’s talk about Ellie, who’s an environmentalist. She cares about what’s happening to the planet and wants to spend her money on things that don’t hurt Mother Earth. Ellie is shopping in the supermarket and as she picks things up some delicious smoked Atlantic salmon, she scans it with Conscience on her smartphone. It tells her three things.
- This store has the cheapest smoked Atlantic salmon in her neighborhood.
- Atlantic salmon should be avoided – it’s a collapsing fish population.
- She should try Alaskan Salmon – there’s some in this store or at a store 3 blocks away for slightly cheaper.
Now Ellie can make the kind of well-informed decisions that support her values – and maybe save a few bucks!
People already care enough about this kind of idea to use smartphone applications for it 1
How do you make this work correctly?
Conscience on the phone is an easy application. You scan barcodes and do a lookup on the web. The tough work is in defining a smart, expandable interface and in getting the data. I’d like to see a marketplace of data providers. Greenpeace and the Sierra Club could have different information on environmental impact of products. As you purchase electronics, the EFF could have a lookup that lets you know which machines stay owned by their manufacturers instead of belonging to you.
As you open the conscience app for the first time, it offers you a directory of providers like the EFF, the Sierra Club, Amnesty International, and more. We can imagine religious people with strict and complex dietary laws using an independent lookup they can trust more than a food label. You choose providers you trust on issues you care about, and when you are in a store you can let those providers influence your conscience.
Why not just provide the database and the ratings yourself as the app provider?
It is important to make sure there is a marketplace of providers – that’s the best way to keep them from being corrupted or lazy. Also, this is a difficult job top pay people to do, but a good one to crowdsource.
My work buddy Varun spurred me to write about this – he was thinking of a very similar thing centered around the idea of what “Organic” actually means.
What next? This goes on the long list of project ideas. I really hope someone else magically makes this as I just want to use it, not make it. Perhaps there are some advocacy groups that could be persuaded to fund the idea.