We can use pictures of tomatoes to predict worldwide food shortages

When it comes to problems like climate change and civil unrest, even governments in the most developed countries don’t have enough data or the right data to help. If those governments are corrupt, the problem is even worse.

Shortages of food and water are often at the root of these problems. If people can capture enough data about those shortages, then economic activity tracking company Premise can aggregate that data to predict food shortages before they become too serious, CEO David Soloff said at Gigaom’s Structure Data conference Wednesday.

Mobile phones are key to collecting the data. Equipped with their phones, residents of cities around the world can visit street vendors and fruit and vegetable stands “to capture product availabilities, prices and other data…well in advance of what governments typically enable themselves to do,” Soloff said.

Once Premise has gathered enough photographs of, say, tomatoes, it can begin to recognize patterns: Are the tomatoes discolored? Is the average number of tomatoes for sale going down? What were tomato prices last year compared to this year? In turn, this data can signal an impending food shortage.

Phones open up the possibilities “for asking people, wherever they live or work, to tell us what’s going on in the world around them,” Soloff said. “We map the truth from the ground up.”

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Photo by Jakub Mosur