Health data ‘hacktivist’ turns to the crowd to build an open-source database for food

If you’re looking for recipes, calorie counts and basic nutrition information about food, there are oodles of websites and apps to help you out. But despite the seeming abundance of food-related digital resources, Fred Trotter, a self-proclaimed “hacktivist” and “accidental health data journalist” said the web is still missing an open source food database that includes the full-range of basic nutritional information, as well as includes data about protein structure and the relationships between ingredients.

That kind of database may not matter too much to the average consumer trying to follow a low-calorie or carb-free diet. But it could be immensely helpful to those with food allergies and the researchers and clinicians trying to treat food-based conditions.

To remedy the problem, Trotter, founder of DocGraph Journal and Not Only Dev, this week launched a MedStartr crowdfunding campaign with the goal of not just raising $20,000 but compiling crowd-sourced food data contributed.  In addition for asking for donations starting at $10, the campaign asks supporters to go to their grocery stories and pantries and scan a minimum of ten items.

Sites like the USDA’s Nutrient Database,, and Open Food are a few resources that are already available. But Trotter said the problem is that current databases either focus too narrowly on one kind of data or they’re not open, or both.

Fred Trotter image“There are all these wonderful open-source databases for food,” he said. “But each one is good at one particular thing. If you want to write a recipe app, there’s a good food database for that. If you want to write an app for food allergies, a second is good for that. If you want to calculate calories, there’s a third. And if you want to scan UPC codes, [there’s] a fourth.  But if you want to do all those things, there’s nothing out there that’s open source.”

Supporting apps for kids with food-related conditions

Over the past few years, Trotter has made a name for himself in the health IT and digital health world for advocating for open-source software in healthcare and mining publicly-available datasets for interesting insights and applications. A recent project called DocGraph, for example, used Medicare data to show how physicians work together to treat patients. (You can check out a recent profile we did on him here.)

He said he decided to launch this latest project after the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital approached him asking for help with an effort to build apps for kids with rare combinations of food allergies. Relatively few children may have a peanut allergy, soy allergy and be lactose intolerant, or have a tree nut allergy and irritable bowel syndrome. But they still need good resources to figure out what they can eat safely, and the databases to support targeted resources are largely lacking, Trotter said.

With this open database, he hopes organizations like the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and other researchers and clinicians will be able to create hyper-targeted apps and other kinds of tools for patients and caregivers dealing with food-related conditions.

Images by Elizabeth Chapman via Shutterstock.