BUILDING TRUST IN FOOD DATA: AN INTERVIEW WITH JULIE PIERCE

2018-08-21

Compliance, Anti-Corruption, Fraud and Error, Government, Public Sector, Retail and E-Commerce, Data and Information, Transparency

Look into your fridge or kitchen cupboards and pick up any store-bought product – whether it’s locally sourced, or whether it carries a guilt-inducingly-heavy carbon footprint, it is likely that it has been registered on more systems, handled by more companies, and is the subject of more attention than you’d bear thinking about. Many of the organisations pouring hours of their time and money into ensuring that your 3 am fridge raid does not go unrewarded are already known to you: Nestle and Unilever, Ocado and Maersk, Sainsburys and Walmart. With their vast networks of clients, suppliers and distributors and their hulking mass of products to keep track of, it is no surprise that these giants are actively experimenting with blockchain – but they are not the only players exploring the technology for enhanced provenance.

Earlier this year the Food Standards Agency announced that it was running a blockchain pilot which has been effectively and securely deployed to track conditions of animals at slaughter in the pilot abattoirs. The project is not only an important landmark for the implementation of blockchain in industry because of its successful implementation, since so many use cases fail to break free of the concept stage, but also because it was designed and carried out by a regulatory body. Since the oft-cited 2016 Government Office for Science Report on Blockchain, the employment of this technology to transform public services and alleviate as well as profit governments and regulators is moving from the ambitious to the imminent. Ahead of their talk at Blockchain Live, On The Block caught up with the FSA’s Director for Openness, Data and Digital, Julie Pierce to find out more about how the pilot came into being and what lies ahead for blockchain and food safety in the UK.

Well-versed in taking organisations through business change through the effective employment of technology, Julie has witnessed a contingent of technological shifts comparable to blockchain. From the introduction of the desktops to the transition towards cloud, technologies of hype have always been met with organisational scepticism. Julie explained that what lead to them becoming so embedded or even run of the mill was not their revolutionary quality but rather, the slow network effect of applications and services that were being written for them or being offered through them. What the milestones of desktops, mobile or cloud lacked, however, was the technological awareness and appetite which we have today. It is not loner technologists who are the sole consumers of techno-hype but the public. Blockchain and Crypto are primetime interests and so the effect of the hype has become compounded.

Despite the furore around blockchain, it was not the pressure of hype which spurred the need to experiment at the FSA. Julie tells us that it was, in fact, more serendipitous. During discussions with over an abattoir data problem with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, they had come to learn about a blockchain driven pilot for the tracking of livestock. Being conceptually linked, the FSA was able to build out the project to solve in part their problems with this data. As the project was formalised, Julie and her team discovered that they were able to articulate a pattern from their employment of blockchain which could be applied further up and down the supply chain. Where there was an absence of trust between stakeholders of this chain, there was equally an opportunity to explore the technology. In addition to being a potential solution, the project and the distributed mindset which the project instilled acted as a chance to freshly approach issues of risk and trust. Julie noted that, trust today was being  undermined by poor quality data, and so some of the element of success of blockchain boils down to its rigorous implementation of data standards.

Aside from the advantages of the project to the FSA as a regulator, a more precise and trustworthy ledger potentially offers industry and the consumer manifold benefits. A glaring advantage is the speed of recall which, beyond being a costly process for industry having to effectively halt the entire production and distribution chain, also spares thousands of consumers from falling prey to the risks of recalled products. Consumers who suffer from allergies would benefit not only from more seamless recalls but also from the accuracy by which products could assure their ingredients when the security of supply chains were bolstered through blockchain. Trusted ledgers are, of course, only one small part of the modernisation of supply chains. Though the convergence of emerging technologies is not a new phenomenon, the potential of IoT, AI and blockchain is co-dependent. It is no surprise then that Julie’s work driving digitisation at the FSA marries these technologies from the get-go. Sensor technologies such as digital thermostats and smart imaging combine with modern approaches towards data analytics, helping to both improve current industry practices as well as predict areas of current and future risk and crime.

With the UK in a prime position to become a global capital for blockchain development, tangible examples of bodies such as the FSA driving the technology forward represent promise for wide scale industry adoption

You can find out more about the FSA’s blockchain project by joining Julie Pierce on the Product Journey Stage at Blockchain Live!

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