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Local Development

by Jamie Gaehring | September 03, 2018

About a year ago I started thinking more about what digital infrastructure is needed to maintain the profitability of local food producers, as well as that of the local industries supporting them. This would include food distributors, retailers and, potentially, open source developers working to improve that infrastructure.

This line of thought goes back to when I first left my job at GrowNYC's Greenmarket program and began pursuing a new career path as a software developer. I had the vaguest idea, even back then, that some sort of digital equivalent to the market was needed, but it's taken me a long time to refine and articulate that intuition.

One lesson I took away from Greenmarket is that a community is stronger when it has the autonomy to produce and distribute the food necessary to keep itself healthy, sustainable and prosperous. In order to foster such autonomy, Greenmarket relies on public infrastructure and the careful administration of that infrastructure; specifically, public space is allocated to the market organizers to use as their main venue—that is, as the marketplace itself.

As my ideas about the topic have evolved, I'm more convinced that there needs to be something analogous to that public infrastructure, whether it is overseen directly by government, or by non-profits funded with grants from both public and private sources. The reason public and private institutions would want to sponsor such programs is that local food security has just as positive an impact on the economy as it does on other parts of a community. It also creates a more productive environment for the kind of research and social programs that universities and state governments try to implement. I think it's key, too, that local government and local businesses are involved, because they're the ones with the most to gain from such an initiative. They also stand to lose the most in the next several decades if there aren't such tools that work at a local level.

To protect local interests, such a movement needs to concern itself with 3 primary objectives:

  1. Work within the local food industry to establish open standards and protocols for the transparent movement of data from the first to the last mile of the supply chain;
  2. Develop free tools and provide training for small food producers to control the generation, propagation and security of their business-related data; and
  3. Advocate for those producers' digital rights and interests in the rapidly converging space between agriculture and technology.

Again, it's important to partner locally to fund these initiatives, because these types of tools and protocols could be a bulwark against the rising tide of globalized agriculture. This is not just in the interest of local farmers, but involves local distributors, local food hubs, local food co-ops, etc, and it should include local open source developers, too. Only together can we produce a vibrant foodshed that can compete with the level of technology that's already being released from the R&D departments of large multinational ag companies and Silicon Valley food startups, a trend which will only gain in intensity over the coming years.

To that end, I hope to keep working with local farmers, some of whom I've known for years and others who I'm just beginning to know. My goal is to provide them with the tools they need to produce the data associated with their products, and give consumers the tools to consume that data. This will come in the form of public API's that can pipe such data to their partners, like restaurants, distributors and farmers markets. It will also entail new user interfaces for capturing that data at the site of production.

The real challenge will be to make these tools as freely available to as many food producers as possible. The more data that originates from systems that support those API's, the more third party developers will be encouraged to create systems that consume those API's downstream, and potentially propagate that data even further to the end consumer. Then it's a matter of working closely with those farmers and their commercial partners to identify what data adds the most value to their product, and develop the API's which will deliver that data most effectively, along with its corresponding value.

Over the course of the past year I've had the good fortune to work on an amazing open source project called farmOS, and through it I've met an incredible group of people, assembling under the name GOAT (Gathering for Open Agricultural Technology). Seeing such a diverse network of like-minded individuals only confirms for me that the talent and leadership already exists to turn such a vision into a reality.

The path to greater food security in our local communities will, in some part, require us to look to tradition and relearn some lessons from the past; however, I believe it will also require us to look ahead and innovate with new technologies, particularly as we strive to preserve those traditions. After all, if we truly take stock in our history, we will observe that farming was, and is, one of the earliest and most transformative technologies, which enabled us first to create such complex and diverse communities, and it may ultimately enable us to hold on to them.