Most products consumed within the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) are produced and distributed through low cost supply chains that typically do not reveal certain types of information to end consumers. Without this information it is difficult for consumers to assess the quality of the products they buy or exercise their preferences for safe, environmentally sustainable, and economically just products and services. Producers also have much less of an incentive to provide such goods without an effective, trustworthy way to inform consumers. In order to provide full information about how, when, and by whom products were produced, producers, supply chain operators, and third party certifiers need to agree on a data architecture that can facilitate exchange and sharing of information that comes from product production systems, supply chain distribution systems, and systems used to determine compliance with voluntary and government-mandated product standards.
The Building Information Sharing Networks to Support Consumer Choice Project (I-Choose Project) is a three-year research activity funded by the National Science Foundation. The research team consists of a network of researchers and practitioners from Canada, Mexico, and the United States. The project aims to develop a data interoperability framework to provide consumers with a wide range of information about how, where, and by whom products are manufactured and brought to market. The project will focus first on development of interoperability among stakeholder communities for the single case of coffee grown in Mexico, and distributed and consumed in Canada and the United States. The lessons learned from this specific case will then be generalized across other product domains.
This project aims to create I-Choose, a data interoperability framework, to support the provision of a wide range of information about how, where, and by whom products are manufactured and brought to market. This includes information about “green” supply chains or production methods, wages paid to producers or workers in the supply chain, working conditions, environmental impact, or a wide range of other information about the products that they purchase can be delivered to consumers. The project will focus on development of interoperability among stakeholder communities for the single case of coffee grown in Mexico, and distributed and consumed in Canada and the United States. The project builds on previous efforts of members of the North America Digital Government Working Group (NADGWG).
The project team consists of a network of stakeholders involved in Mexican coffee production for distribution in Canada and the US, along with researchers from the fields of information science, computer science, economics, and political science. The project explores interoperability with three types of specific information systems: (1) those designed and maintained by government regulators; (2) those designed and maintained by consumer advocates using social networking technologies; and (3) proprietary data systems from individual firms in the producer, supply chain, or retail systems.
The I-Choose data interoperability network will be unprecedented in nature as it will involve consumers, producers, government regulatory agencies and supply chain/distribution across multiple domains and countries. It will allow more information into market transactions so that consumers can make decisions that maximize their specific utility preferences and align the strategies of these stakeholder groups through market mechanisms rather than through cumbersome regulation. These diverse stakeholders will collaborate to create a series of technical products of the increasing granularity and specificity (ontology, taxonomy, data architecture) necessary for supporting interoperability while gradually expanding their network. The result of this process will be a fully-formed research and practice network and a high quality set of deliverables produced through the consensus of all relevant stakeholder groups, thus ensuring maximum interoperability of information systems. The knowledge gained through constructing and expanding I-Choose will inform a wide range of future collaborations in terms of how to create a trusted environment where incentives for collaboration and competition are complementary, not mutually exclusive. The study is relevant for a wide range of actors who are already experimenting with new forms of collaboration such as labor, environment, and agriculture departments and agencies in the NAFTA region, interested legislators, businesses, trade unions, environmental NGOs, consumer groups, and agricultural associations.
The products to be produced during this three year period are as follows:
The I-Choose network will consist of producers, supply chain operators, and third party certifiers as well as academic researchers from the US, Canada and Mexico. Throughout the project network, members will work together to identify the knowledge domains and stakeholders whose input is necessary for improving the quality of the I-Choose prototype. The network will be expanded over time to include additional scholars whose research interests align with the goals of the project, including doctoral students and post doctoral associates, as well as those whose practical interests might be served by its work, such as government certifiers, supply chain managers, and consumer advocates.
The creation of a data interoperability network involving diverse stakeholder groups is difficult. To develop such network, it is important to create an agreed-upon data architecture to facilitate information exchange and sharing from production systems, supply chain distribution systems, systems used to determine compliance with voluntary and government-mandated product standards, as well as systems empowering consumers with collaborative rating tools. I-Choose data architecture will be developed consensually through a multi-stage iterative process of sequential consensus building activities with members of the I-Choose network.
The I-Choose consumer preference prototype will create the scenario representing actual experiences of various type of users—consumers, producers, and distributors. The prototype development will be coordinated with stakeholder evaluation activities and will be done using a rapid application development approach that encourages interaction with stakeholders. The I-Choose network members will engage in prototype evaluation to gather feedback on how to better design and implement future interoperable product traceability and labeling systems as well as to identify challenges for implementation and provide recommendations for policy changes to maximize the market share of fair labor, eco friendly, or sustainable products within the NAFTA training regions.
As part of this project, a series of policy white papers will be developed to detail how community-based interoperable data sharing networks focused on providing elaborated product information to end-consumers can become a cornerstone of international trading regimes. In short, the papers will identify smart ways of labeling that can substantially reduce the information gap between producers and consumers. These policies will focus on helping businesses in the NAFTA region identify what consumers care about, contributing to forecasting consumers’ behavior, and bringing consumers and producers together in order to increase trust in worker and environment friendly products, recommend policies which increase the market share of organic, fair trade, and eco-friendly products and promote sustainable economic development.
This project is supported by a $710,000 grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation.
Additional funding for our Mexican partners is being provided by the Mexican Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (National Council on Science and Technology).