Food, hygiene and the open data challenge

Warning: Liveblogging – prone to error, inaccuracy, and howling affronts to grammar. This post will be improved over the course of a few days.

ODCamp 21-02-15_14_Food_Standards_Agen

Hosted by Dr Sian Thomas, Food Standards Agency

The Food Standards Agency has a big commitment to open data – but is honest that it’s not always in a useful format. Dr Thomas asked for suggestions for improving that, and the room had plenty of ideas…

The more ways of accessing the data, the better was the message: RSS, CSVs, APIs, etc. Tab separated data is “old fashioned” – but pretty easy to deal with. However, she’s only got a team of four, and is responsible for a lot more than open data (like date protection, FoI, and so on…). They’re dependent on other data-collecting organisations opening up what they do.

Supply chain open data could be a really interesting perspective, especially for the rural part of the economy. DEFRA has a lot of open data on that. But once it enters the supply chain it becomes commercial data, and no-one releases that. Some supermarkets release some data, but far from all, and in theory you can do more down the packaging chain. By law you need to know one step above and one step below – who you bought it from and who you sell it to. It’s not a standard format, though. Also, food is traded as a commodity, so it often changes had without physically moving. That said, DEFRA is right at the top of the list of bodies that release data.

Data quality: how do authorities describe supermarket canteens? As the company it’s in – or the contract catering company actually running it. There is a standards quality programme – but there are cultural factors that come into play. For example, in a more affluent area the forms of food consumed might be inherently more risky – rare meat and chicken liver paté. They notice the quality issues most in Wales, where there’s mandatory scores on the doors of the rating, and that’s changed things.

The App Gap

There are lots of apps around some of this data – but they never seem to get past competition wins into existence, or at least into consumers’ hands. Maybe they should approach people like Yelp and TripAdvisor? It’s been mooted before. There’s strong correlation between their scores and food hygiene ratings. Maybe they could be used as a trigger for reinspection?

Could food hygiene data enrich open street maps? Sure. Pub data to highlight pubs they don’t have marked right now, or warning signs for dodgy takeaways. But address data is a problem – what do you do about hospital sites, with multiple outlets on a postcode, or a great restaurant next to that dodgy takeaway.

Updates are a problem too – we’re only getting an annual snapshot of more rapidly updated date. Could we get an RSS feed of changes, for example? Parsing the existing XML can be tricky. In Belfast people use backslashes in range addresses that breaks a lot of operations.

Accounting for allergies

Food contamination alerts for allergies need more work. They’d really like to take the RSS feed of allergy updates, and make them filterable by specific allergy, but they’re not allowed to invest in that kind of service. Could you relate that to barcode scanning? Yup, in theory. That would allow some apps to check for the update.

Allergies are a complex area – we have undiagnosed people, we have inaccurately self-diagnosed people, and not comprehensive picture of what foods are creating the biggest issues. There are some files available on the Food & You section of, and generally decent figures on the diagnosed people.

Food poisoning outbreaks are hard to pinpoint quickly – unless it can be identified via social media. For example, an outbreak via a curry festival was identified by social media before the labs managed to do so.

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