Transparency in coffee trading: An investigation towards IxD for world citizens

25 June 2012

On Mon, 18.6.2012, I attended the “web of things hackathon” that took place in Newcastle, UK along the Pervasive Conference 2012. After a short introduction to the concept of the web of things and an initial brainstorm on possible projects for the day, the group of 8 people split up into two groups. One implementing a notification system for expiry dates on food items in the fridge incorporating NFC tags and twitter (They did a nice job on rapidly implementing a basic system where food items could be registered and a notification is sent to a twitter account when the item’s expiry date approached) and the other one (which I was part of) focusing on increasing transparency of the coffee supply chain for consumers. This post is mostly about the conceptual development of that idea over the day and how it turned into something valuable.

Our first idea was to give the coffee consumer a possibility to e.g. scan a barcode/QR-code of a coffee beverage she bought and then get information on each step of the coffee beans’ supply chain. Shortly after beginning the implementation (it was a one-day hackathon after all, so we had to hurry in order to get something done), we realized that by allowing the reverse information flow such that not only the customer gets additional info but also the coffee producer gets information on the people who drink their coffee, this technical gadget might actually gain some critical potential. We were thinking fair trade here i.e., we had rather small farmers in mind.

The offering of data like e.g. “drinking location”, beverage type, price and a personal rating might start an open communication between producer and consumer, possibly increasing transparency in the market. It could eventually support the development of a mutual social link between producer and consumer. All in all, the originally very tech-oriented concept turned into a (still very raw and oversimplified) attempt to break free from the “I respect you but you’re still different” culture of fair trade, and establish a conversation between truly equal partners.

Out of this, several challenges emerge: Besides the obvious ones of e.g. gathering the distributor data, here are some tricky ones:

  • Coffee beans are mostly harvested in developing countries by poor people (at least the pickers are, and this is where we intend to deliver the information to). How do these people get the information? A possibility could be to transform the collected data into printed posters, possibly displaying it as visual information (illiteracy has to be taken into account here).
  • In order to actually get coffee consumers interested in the service and make them willing to share their information, we want to offer them information about the coffee’s origin and the ability to rate it. However, I think, there is still a lack of ideas on how to keep people interested in doing this. As there was no marketing expert in our group, I am curious to hear about ideas from you.

Over the day, we managed to get an initial proof of concept running; you can get the source code here.

Although, I am not planning to continue this work, I think it was an interesting challenge to start thinking about transparency by open knowledge and its consequences. As Chris Csikszentmihályi put it in his keynote for DIS2012: “Think of citizens rather than users” (video of a similar talk). It is somehow fulfilling to have this additional part of actually thinking of something that might has an actually direct (and positive) impact on people’s life. I’ll try to continue this.

Group participants:

  • Michael A. Blackstock
  • Till Bovermann
  • Vlad Trifa
  • René Tünnermann

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain View, California, 94041, USA.