Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Tracking Lettuce and Tracking People

I like to start my Document Engineering course at UC Berkeley with news stories or “mini” case studies of the sorts you find in trade magazines that illustrate the rationale, design, implementation, or deployment of some document-centric or information-intensive application. It’s a good way to get students to see the big ideas of Document Engineering and to start appreciating the idea that there are design patterns for information components and document exchanges that apply across a wide range of industries.

Today I mentioned several of these “Document Engineering in the News” stories. The first one, from the March 13 2007 Wall Street Journal, was titled "Tailing Virulent Veggies” and described the efforts by Dole to use GPS and RFID technologies to improve the tracking of produce from the field to the supermarket. The E. coli contaminations of spinach in late 2006 killed people, but also greatly undermined consumer confidence in the quality of the food supply, costing grocery chains lots of money and customers. People are starting to care a lot more about information transparency in this domain (I wrote about this last year and Jon Udell had an interesting post a couple of weeks ago), but there still isn’t very much of it.

For a second story I chose an article from Hong Kong (mostly to give students the idea that they can find these kinds of stories anywhere) about a tracking program at the airport there “to simplify passenger travel by integrating airport, immigration and airline processes in real time, offering travellers a range of benefits.” I don’t believe that the security at airports has increased enough to justify the costs and intrusions, but that’s not the point of this example. I just wanted to illustrate that “tracking” is a generic information pattern that applied to all sorts of stuff – in these two cases to lettuce and people.

But this led to an interesting discussion in which we compared “tracking heads” for lettuce and people that has kept me thinking long after class ended. For example:

-Bob Glushko

Another thing. I don't think that there are any lettuce head terrorists trying to beat the tracking system.
a thought: should you compare the head of lettuce with the passenger, or rather the travel patterns of Dole's lettuce with the travel patterns of a passenger? And would Dole be concerned with the information privacy of its lettuce heads?
I think it can be useful to do this kind of fanciful comparison of two situations that have some aspects in common, but you shouldn't get carried away. In this case, there clearly are interesting observations of two kinds - those that compare/contrast the "heads" themselves and those that compare/contrast their "travel histories." A "tracking pattern" has to incorporate parts of both.
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