Mapping Czech open data (and dangerous food)

One of the biggest topics we cover at Net Prophet is the growing acceptance of open government data. At least in some sectors, many countries are beginning to see the benefits of opening up their wealth of information to their citizens and journalists. Some interesting platforms have been developed in the process, but we have noticed that even the best examples really only go so far in truly opening up their data. Yes, a ministry may make a document or database available online, but often they are too difficult for average citizens – and even journalists – to use.

Open government data is an interesting question that is still being figured out. For us, there are many questions that are still being addressed. Is it enough to simply make data available or does this data need to be provided in an accessible and easy-to-understand format? To what extent is it the citizen’s responsibility to participate in this process?

This issue came into sharp focus this summer with the launch of a particular site in the Czech Republic. We have been following this project since its launch this summer, but we have not written about it for a particular reason.

I will get to that in a minute. First, let me give  some background on the project itself.

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A promising Czech initiative

One of the most successful examples of a government embracing open data policies that we have seen so far in Central Europe –at least in terms of citizen response – has been a project by the Czech Agriculture and Food Inspection Authority (Státní zemědělská a potravinářská inspekce). The project makes information regarding dangerous or poor quality food products being sold in Czech stores available to the public.

In June, the project launched a website detailing every violation that the office has come across in their inspection of stores and supermarkets around the Czech Republic. The site, cleverly named “potraviny na pranýři” or “food pillory,” implies a kind of public shaming for stores found selling any of these products. Users can see a list of the products with details about each item: where it was sold, where it came from, who made it, etc. The site even offers pictures of each product.

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The food pillory posts info about adulterated or dangerous food found in stores around the Czech Republic.

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After its launch in June, the project garnered a lot of positive coverage in the Czech media and was immensely popular with the Czech population. The site got a reported 200,00 hits on its first day, and hits soared to more than 4 million by mid-July, according to Czech Radio.

The Authority’s spokesman, Paul Kopřiva, explained the goal of the project and its reaction to Czech Radio:

“The Food Pillory project is here to provide the necessary information so customers can make well-informed decisions. And it is also an effort to provide an orientation tool to strengthen the consumer’s role in the market…yes, it is very popular and that has been beyond our wildest dreams.”

As Czech Radio also pointed out, the site has received some criticism, albeit probably not so unexpectedly, from food sellers and producers. They argue the site lacks context and does not explain who is responsible for a product’s deficiency. Those arguments are likely more related to these organizations’ displeasure at being named and shamed, rather than any substantive faults with the information itself.

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Not what or when, but where

We at Net Prophet have our own bone to pick with the site, however.

Our problem with potraviny na pranýři is that the site is frustratingly not great. At least, not as great as it could be.

Yes, the site offers a wealth of  vital information for consumers, especially considering the recent tragic events that took place in the Czech Republic with methanol-tainted alcohol that left nearly 40 people dead and a month-long nation-wide liquor ban in September. Consumers have a right to know about dangerous products, and the site does provide this service. In addition, any quick scan of the kind of items that show up frequently on the site gives a good idea of what kind of products to be suspicious of in the future.

The real problem with the site is that it suffers from the same problem as so many other open government data projects: data overload and a lack of a way to navigate that data in a useful manner.  It seems that the Inspection Authority was in such a frenzy to make the data public that they forgot to make it usable by normal people.

Upon arriving on the site, the user sees the most recent items, along with photos and information regarding the items’ origins. The user can click on an item to see more details. Users also have the ability to search for a product. This assumes, however, that the user knows what they want to search for.

The first question a user would want answered is not “when” or what.” It is “where” – as in, “Where are these products being sold?” or “Has a product on this list been sold at a store I frequent?”

Theoretically, a user could search based on the name of a store, nearby street, or city, but that involves a certain amounts of effort and luck.

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A search in the database for Prague returns nearly 200 results!

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This sites needs a way to visually represent its data in a way that allows users to filter out information that is not useful for them – something along the lines of a map. And even better: a  map where you could zoom in to your city and street and see if any poor-quality products  have  been found near you.

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Mapping Czech data

With that in mind, we thought we would perform an experiment. After all, open data should not be a one-way street. It should be a discussion between authorities and citizens about what is in everyone’s best interests.

We decided we would scrape the data off the potraviny na pranýř site, clean it up, put it in our own database, geotag each entry, and finally feed that info into a zoomable map. The end result of that experiment can be found here: Mapa škodlivých potravin. Our map also incorporates social media functionality, so users can easily tweet or post to Facebook any items they find particularly interesting. Users can also follow the map on Twitter to get automatic updates every time the Inspection Authority updates their list.

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The final result of our attempt to map data from Potraviny na Pranýři

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In the spirit of open data, we decided to offer our scraped data, the platform itself, and the scraper as open source to anyone who wants to take it further. Ideally, we would hope that the Inspection Authority would incorporate our map into their site. So far, however, our repeated emails to their office have not elicited much of a response.

In the interest of complete disclosure and giving credit where credit is due, it seems that we were not the only ones with this idea.  Earlier this month, at the Big Clean data conference in Prague, we ran into a similar map with a similar name called “Mapa Zkazenych Potravin” (Map of spoiled Food). This map predates ours by more than two months. A simple Google search of those terms also returns a third mapping project released two weeks ago that included some pretty snazzy interactive infographics.

In all honesty, we had no idea of either project until we were putting the finishing touches on ours. If anything, their existence proves how much something like this is in demand and how valuable it would be for the Inspection Authority to incorporate such  elements  into potraviny na pranýř.  Also, the overlap in effort goes to show how much this process of opening government data really is a multilateral conversation.  It is not just the sole responsibility of state officials. While they should take that first step, it is reassuring to know that other actors out there are willing to pick up the ball and run with it to make something better.

So  though we were not first, this process was extremely valuable as an experiment  in thinking about ways to improve public-data sharing and what it means for this data to be useful. This type of experimentation will be more important as more governments move toward open data. It is not inconceivable that in the next decade we will be facing a flood of data and thinking back nostalgically at how great it was to be able to handle all the data that came our way and not lose the signal in the noise.

Obviously, this conversation is nowhere near over. We are still patiently waiting to hear from the Inspection Authority to see if they will take our map. We would also love to hear from anyone else about ways we could improve our platform and make it more usable. So you if you can think of something we should add, either let us know or take our map/code and make your own experiment.


About the Author

Joshua Boissevain and Ernad Halilovic

Joshua Boissevain is a research associate and editorial assistant at Transitions Online. He's also a freelance journalist and photographer based in Prague. Find him on twitter at @joshboissevain.
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