Open Information, Open Government, and Better Nutrition: A Possibility To Explore

Starbucks FritterWhat if you could easily track and the nutrition information for the food you or your kids ate? As open government and open standards increase their success, I have begun to wonder about the nature of labels and commercial information. The recent shift in New York to requiring that food have calorie labels seemed like it should have helped people limit their impulse to buy empty calorie foods. I know of several iPhone apps and online services that offer ways to track calories and additional nutrition data. People who use those types of apps would want more and better information. One could track cholesterol, sugar, and other vital statistics that the New York labels do not seem to offer up front. All of which made me think that this could be a great moment for open government and information.

I am not sure what the rules regarding food labels are. But given that most foods now bear rather rich nutrition information, it seems that the FDA or some other part of government should have a depository for what companies claim their products contain. If so, the government should make that information available in an open format (a la Government Data and the Invisible Hand). After that app providers and websites could pull that data so one could more easily track what one ate to stay on a diet and/or provide doctors with a better sense of what might be causing cholesterol or diabetes issues. In addition, as the country faces obesity problems, a public interest group might be able to build tools for school foods. That tool could allow parents to see not just what the menu was, but the nutritional value of the food in a real way. Communities could better argue about the food quality and costs than they do now. I think that all of these benefits and more might be unleashed with open data and information tools. I am certain there are important questions about this idea that I may have missed. Please share constructive comments about the idea. The more people who tinker with the plan, the better it could be.

PS For those interested in some related reading, Margaret Chon’s article Marks of Rectitude is an excellent study of the intersection between trademarks, certification marks, and the desire to signal sustainability and/or social responsibility. It asks “Can marks of rectitude bear the weight of the various goals that have proliferated in the global regulatory marketplace?”

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2 Responses

  1. geoff says:

    I think you’re a little behind. See here: http://www.mypyramidtracker.gov/. And about 100 apps on the net and the iphone (probably more, actually) that do similar things.

  2. Deven says:

    Geoff,

    Thanks for playing, but something may be missing here. As I noted in the post, yes there are many apps but the data is not as rich as it could be. And, I may have missed something, but the site the government offers and to which you refer requires one to go to that site. As a general matter, is all that data in a form that would allow anyone to study it or use it in other ways? If so, I am happy to know that the resource exists, but I don’t see it yet. Take a look at http://www.fedthread.org. That site took open data and built a great tool. The government enabled that effort and others by offering the data in a good, usable form (the cited paper goes into what that idea entails).

    On a different, related note, thanks again. I knew that the FDA had this data but forgot that. You made me recall the site, nutritiondata.com. That site gathers its list from the FDA. BUT the FDA site does not seem to be as elegant as it could be about how it presents information. That is part of the point: the information is there but not easily accessed and used by others. The government may not want to be in the business of building apps etc. Instead it could be the place to gather and share information (something is seems to do rather well) so many can play with it to build apps and study it as they see fit.