Project Idea: Conscience

This is just a sketch of an idea. Help me fill it out.

The elevator pitch

An angel on her shoulder

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.

The Story

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.

  1. This store has the cheapest smoked Atlantic salmon in her neighborhood.
  2. Atlantic salmon should be avoided – it’s a collapsing fish population.
  3. 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.

  1. See this article about how people can make better fish choices on the go.   (back)

But wait, there's more

2 thoughts on “Project Idea: Conscience

  1. This idea is totally brilliant!!!
    1) I like the idea of having organizations (or even private blogs) that provide information for this service. If this is an on-the-go thing, I don't want to spend forever sifting through claims, verifying them, etc. But I can say, "I trust Planned Parenthood, Greenpeace, and my friend Joe. I respect PETA, but they're too hardcore for me. This blog about my neighborhood always knows the best deals." I subscribe (in advance) to these people/groups and any time I do a search, I already know how to mentally filter whatever "facts" they've entered.
    2) All kinds of groups would have a real interest in providing their stance on all kinds of things. They already spend a ton of time and money trying to get their message out. It may not convert anyone who doesn't already believe in their cause, but anyone who subscribes to them via Conscience is basically saying, "I'll let you remind me of your p.o.v. and take it into consideration every time I use this app."

  2. This is a great idea, and an app that really needs to be built. There are lots of useful new ways to look at things that smart phones make possible. I would love to give more visceral views of the ingredient list.

    You could turn the existing one into a tag cloud where each ingredient’s tag is weighted by the percentage of the final product’s mass that the ingredient takes up.

    You could also do some more structured re-arrangement of how people see the ingredients so that they have understandable frames of reference. My favorite example of that is, where they show you how much sugar is in a product by placing it next to a stack of sugar cubes that equal the actual content in the product.

    You can also show the supply chain of the product. For food that could include where something was grown or raised, what the standards of agriculture or animal care were for it, and how much was required to move it to your point of purchase.

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