A community approach to helping people know, learn, and improve local food systems.

Dates: Sep–Dec 2012
Skills/Subjects: , , , ,


  • Researching semantic web, food systems
  • Wiki wrangling
  • Significant information architecture
  • Presenting and processing feedback, weekly


I’ve found a few problem spaces with how information about food is shared, or not as the case may be:

  1. Gleaning, food salvage, and freegan organizations are either not well networked with the entire area or nonexistent. To counter this problem, there could be a communication framework to connect those who seek food with those who offer food would. More importantly, it should be as easy as possible to access and use, for the case of those with little personal means, and visible and attractive as possible to enroll those who can provide frequently and reliably.
  2. I have shopped at Atlanta’s Buford Highway Farmer’s Market every week for the last three years to cook dinner for 4-7 people. I rarely see university age people there, and even more rarely people noticeably from Georgia Tech. The most common demographics I see there are tourists (probably half the people there at any time), followed by Latino and Asian families who often seem to buy several things in bulk (most often bags full of various fish, vegetables, and tortillas). From this it is clear that farmers markets serve people anywhere from curiousity to weekly shopping to niche interests, like buying in bulk. Perhaps to find mass-appeal, networking with other restaurants who would buy in bulk, especially those with a farm-to-table philosophy, would make the best ROI for for-profit ventures.
  3. According to Carolyn Steel, whereas pre-Industrial Revolution civilizations were built among its food production systems, the advent of fast mass-transportation systems like the railroad initiated a split that has resulted in situations like massive urban centers far away from an equally massive farming center. This system has led to the degeneration of areas surrounding high-yield farming areas, as well as the disconnect between food consumed and food produced. To bridge this disconnect, government and other large organizations can help by re-introducing production to consumers via urban greenhouses and community gardens. However, even these efforts are not at all indicative of the scale, treatment, and permanence of actual contemporary farming. Instead, what if consumers could have a scaled idea of a food system from seed to mouth and the education to go along with it?

I created a semantic web networking platform, using a Mediawiki-based framework, that used a community approach to helping users know, learn, and improve local food systems. This should serve as a basis to help solve food-related information networking issues, as I described in this presentation to my studio group and advisor.

Keeping with the research into semantic web, I set up Foodhub as a wiki based on the Mediawiki extension Semantic MediaWiki and SemanticMaps to improve the geographic information that will become an important element.

Through this food and civic media project studio, I have discovered methods of research through design as well as perspectives in food systems from other students’ projects. Approaching food systems and civic media as an area of research first involved how to learn through my research process. Bowers’ process of research through design was helpful in understanding how to approach a research topic with a design emphasis. While scientific rigor via reproducability and natural observation may not directly apply to design topics (information design in my case), Bowers’ annotated portfolios inspired my approach of building an initial architecture and filling out enough data to explain the project to and begin to apply the results from community organizations in my next phase of research.

Determining the content of Foodhub required discovering the fundamental nodes and connections in a food system. By researching existing systems of civic participation and successfull participation elsewhere (e.g. Wikipedia), I could determine how to fill out the data for the initial state of Foodhub. Furthermore, the perspectives of students through feedback on the several presented iterations, also covered in Catmull’s description of Pixar creatives, helped me better scope my project and discover realms of information and strategies to capture it.

This project studio has been my first opportunity to discover challenges in civic media and apply creative solutions, or research them at least. By designing a system of discovering and learning about local food systems, I may be able to contribute some research knowledge about how food systems are an integral factor in the physical and economical health of a community and how good design can confront the challenges in making use of that information.

Civic participation is especially important to younger generations that may, once involved, be more likely to continue participating and encourage other to do so. However, when it comes to food systems, how and what people eat, there is little participation outside of special organizations such as community-supported agriculture (CSA) projects and neighborhood associations; furthermore, these are often more supported by established residents. To better target younger people, I chose the most widespread method of collaborative participation among youth, the Internet, most notably Wikipedia, where a third of the users contribute and over half of the contributors are under 30 years old. With this research, I decided to build Foodhub on a MediaWiki platform, incorporating semantic web elements (Semantic MediaWiki extension) to better organize the data.

Data gathering is an ongoing process, but the first step was establishing the system’s architecture and then ensuring it maintains a level of complexity no greater than that of Wikipedia. While the latter is established, the former is the other current ongoing process.

The architecture was based on the community as the basic node in a network of food systems, considering most current food system actors (CSAs and neighborhood associations) are focused on communities. Each community interacts with actors that fall under three high-level categories: producers (produce food), distributors (move food from producers to consumers), and infrastructure (the systems in place that producers and distributors rely on). By identifying who produces food in a community, citizens may be more likely to buy locally or eat more healthily in food deserts. By identifying the distributors and their food sources, citizens may be more informed about the origin of their food and encourage local business.

With this architecture, I can begin working with established community organizations like Atlanta’s Midtown Association and Virginia-Highland Civic Association to discover how I can better incorporate Foodhub as a medium of collaboration, discovery, and reference in their activities and goals. Working with these organizations will also allow better insight to if and how they want to consume and interact with food system information.

This is my current stage of research through information design, having finished my architectural and media research. With food as a common resource across demographics and Foodhub as a method of discovery, I intend to continue this project over the next year so that communities may better work together to improve quality of life and to research the effectiveness of digital media as a means for civic participation