Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Tracking Lettuce and Tracking People
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:
- The same head of lettuce only goes through the supply chain once, while a person goes through the airline tracking system over and over. So there’s a tracking history that’s only relevant in the latter, and surely there are tracking analysis systems that are trying to figure out my travel patterns (like why did I make four trips to Boston in the past three months when I usually go there at most once a year?).
- The way a head of lettuce feels when it gets to the end of its journey can probably be predicted very well by its travel time, temperature, humidity, and other objective measures of the conditions it encountered along the way. In fact, if Dole isn’t using the RFID and GPS technologies in this manner, it is missing out.
People are affected by these factors too, but not as predictably, because all the lettuce in a shipment travels the same way and some of the people heads get to rest in airport lounges and fly in first class and others don’t.
- A head of lettuce doesn’t worry about information privacy.
- A head of lettuce doesn’t have a bad attitude about, or doesn’t take it personally if the tracking person is putting out bad karma. A traveling person does, especially if it happens to be me.