Some time ago, we came across the Open Food Network (OFN); an initiative that aims to bring closer food producers, food hubs and other types of stakeholders, aiming to help people connect with local food producers.
We were happy to be able to make a connection with Myriam Bouré from OFN Scandinavia, who accepted our invitation for this short interview; her responses helped us understand more about the network and we hope that they will help you, too!
Could you tell us some things about you? What’s your educational background, interests and current affiliation?
My name is Myriam, I’m French. I studied business administration in ESSEC Business School, and majored in social entrepreneurship in 2007. I’m passionate about “positive economy” and all the new forms of envision how we organize our society. Especially, I’m passionate about collaborative economy: how to organize ourselves together to answer our needs? How to empower people and distribute the power? I am currently involved in two “Decentralized Collaborative Organizations”:
– OuiShare, a global think and do-tank focusing on collaborative economy and how to support the shift toward a more collaborative society. I’m involved in projects around community building and governance design.
– Open Food Network, an open-source web-infrastructure project which aims at decentralizing the food distribution system by enabling people and communities to build their own distribution initiatives and cooperate with each other. I co-founded the entity deploying the platform in Norway, and I’m now also involved in the team launching the project in France. I am also getting involved in mentoring communities who want to deploy their national/regional OFN infrastructure.
Let’s talk about the Open Food Network; what is the story behind it? How it all started?
The project started in Australia in 2012. Kirsten Larsen and Serenity Hill had both studied deeply how the food system works. They realized the food system is controlled by a small number of very large players, which makes it difficult for small farmers to survive. Alternatives do exist, cooperatives, buying groups, Community-supported agriculture (CSA) initiatives, independent food retailers, farmer’s markets. But their impact is constrained by obstacles related to information, logistics, they often struggle with marketing and administration.
They started looking for softwares and solutions which could help those local food networks, but the tool they were looking for didn’t exist: a networked solution that allows flexibility and transparency, making it easier for large and small growers to connect with a range of buyers, through, depending on each case, the necessary middlemen, called “food hubs“. So they decided to create an open-source one, a web-infrastructure as a “commons”.
How is the network operating? What is the role of the hubs and the platform that have developed?
The platform is a place where the actors of the food system can operate and cooperate with each other. On the platform, you have producers, and hubs. A hub can be any distribution actor: a producer who wants to distribute himself his products, a group of producers who want to distribute together their products, a group of consumers who want to buy together to local farmers, share the logistics costs and avoid the margins taken by the stores, an entrepreneur who builds a project to distribute local food to local stores, canteens, hospitals… or anything else! You need some “middlemen” to be able to deliver the food to the customer in a convenient and cost efficient way, so that’s why hubs are needed.
The hubs use the platform as a marketplace so that their clients/members can order online and either be delivered or pick-up what they have ordered somewhere at a specific time. They can manage the operations they need, like manage the product catalog, the orders, the payments, they can export the information into their accounting package, etc. A hub can manage a farmer’s catalog of products, but the farmer himself can also do it! A hub can also manage a range of hubs and be connected to a range of producers, and manage its interactions with them. That can be very useful, for example, to cooperate on logistics with other food hubs in order to be cost and carbon efficient. So to sum up: the platform is the infrastructure of a decentralized food system, and the hubs are the various distribution players.
What is your vision for the future of OFN?
My vision is that OFN could become the infrastructure of the “agro-community age”. The third industrial revolution theory from Jeremy Rifkin is also happening in the food system: more and more people want to buy local food, support their local farmers and the resilience of their local community. To go from few big producers and distributors to lots of small producers and distributors connected to their local communities, we need a new infrastructure, we need the “smart grids” of the food networks, that enable food to be sold, bought and to move easily within this distributed network. That is my vision of the future of OFN: a food network enabler and facilitator.
(Open) Food data is a hot topic nowadays; what types of data do you manage and how? Do you apply specific licenses?
On the Open Food Network platform, we manage data about the producers, certifications/tags, and their catalog of products with, for each products, their association with categories, certifications and tags. We also manage data on the hubs, their sales, their clients/members, and the links between the hubs and the producers. We know at each moment on the platform what has been ordered by which hub, where it has to be picked up, and where and when it has to be delivered. Some of those information could be shared/made open to enable smart services to emerge (see Terms of services). Open Food Network is a free and open source software platform. Our content is licensed with CC BY-SA 3.0, and our code with AGPL 3. The Terms of Service of OFN are available online (PDF).
How is OFN managing the data it collects ?
Datas about producers are visible to anyone if the producer want them to be visible. Their catalogs of products is visible through hubs that either the producers manage themselves, or that are managed by a hub (in that case the producers give the authorization to the hubs to access and manage their data). Data about clients and members belong to the hubs. The main issue we face in terms of data sharing is that data remain locally stored in each one of the hubs so it cannot be shared with users connected to other hubs. However, we are working on adapting Web 3.0 approaches, where data will not be restricted at a hub level; instead, it will be available from any hub that its author/owner has granted access.
How big can food data be? Do you see a potential for enormous amount of food-related data being produced in the next years?
Every farmer, micro-farmer, food processor, individual growing or making food at a very small scale, could be willing to sell, exchange, trade what they grow or make, on a P2P mode or through distribution entities/hubs, that can also be very diverse, and that will, if that transition toward an agro-communities age is confirmed, tend to multiply. Each product can be linked to some standard data (like the type of plants, the certifications) or tags; the same goes for each activity that is being recorded by the stakeholders.
All this information, and the information about what has been ordered by each hub and where/when products have to be picked-up and delivered can represent a huge amount of data. Such data can be used for various purposes, such as improving the harvesting, storage, transportation and distribution of produce, increasing the efficiency of the corresponding activities and reducing costs.
Anything else that you would like to share with us?
One important aspect of the platform is the transparency, at each level: about products, producers and hubs, but also, about the margin taken by the hubs (you can display the price breakdown) By enabling any kind of actor in the food system to operate as they want, following their operational and business model, and cooperate with one another, Open-food network cultivates eco-diversity (not only biodiversity 😉 ). Open Food Network is among the winners of the OuiShare Awards 2015.
We would like to thank Myriam for taking the time to respond to our questions and going into so many details. We will be keeping an eye on the Open Food Network from now on and you’d better do the same; the least you can do is start following OFN on social media: Facebook, Twitter & Instagram!