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Goals and means of Consumerium

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The Goals of the Consumerium Project

The goals of the project are:

A) the creation of a distributed information system containing information from producers, resellers, importers and exporters, wholesalers, retailers, NGOs, consumerism activists, public registers, stock exchanges and consumers themselves.
B) the creation of a Consumer Agent that provides an intuitive interface to these information masses. The Consumer Agent is a small program residing in the mobile phone of tomorrow. Using the wireless link provided by the shop, it connects to the Consumerium system and retrieves all relevant information about the product in question, which is shown in a compact view to the consumer.
C) finding ways to add more company and product data to the system; monitoring the reliability and validity of the informations. Securing a reasonable degree of reliability and completeness is one of the major challenges of this project.

How did the consumerium project start?

The idea of consumerium entered the mind of yours truly, the leading strategist of the project, when my last attempt to create a world-improving, ethical and environmental information system halted because a competitor beat me to the market. As the competitor had more economical resources and a stronger workforce, I decided to shove my public transport route search engine and put my thinking cap on - once more.

When I first heard of Bluetooth, a short-range wireless networking technology, I immediately realized that the arrival of Bluetooth to the mass market will provide great opportunities for the development of applications that are completely new, or at least based on a completely new platform, the mobile phone. You can already transfer information to a mobile without having to pay to the Operator, this greedy creature. I've been interested in the relationship between market economy and capitalism for a long time, thinking about how to create regulating systems to get capital onto an ethical and environmental path and then I had the idea...

You, Dear consumer, have to be provided with more information about products and how all these things your local supermarket is full of got there, straight in front of your nose, packages into coloured boxes and bags, one more tempting than the other.

Information about the products' environmental impact, workers' conditions, the producer's social conscience - or lack thereof, all this has to be available at your fingertips. Which company made the product you are considering to buy, and who owns the company?

If you don't like the product or the company, don't buy it - but you could send some feedback to the producer. Tell them why you don't like the company or product, maybe the heap of mails flooding into the PR offices takes some effect. Is there somebody hiding behind the seemingly local and small brand, maybe a multinational giant who exploits workers in poor countries and purchases raw materials from wherever and whoever supplies them at the lowest price, not caring about eg. for the human rights situation in the country they are produced in?

Has somebody initiated a boycott on the company and if so, who might these people be who dare to uphold that you are a bad consumer, even a bad human being in case you decide to buy this product? Even if you don't deem consumption decisions a serious means of civil activism, you may be interested in what other consumers think about this new washing powder. Have a look on what comments they have published on the product you want to try. Maybe the most essential thing is to find out how to use these expensive sun-dried tomatoes in order to make your food taste better. Think what you think, value what you value, consume how you please, but if you want information to back your consumption decisions, consumerium is being built for you.


How will the goals be reached?

I admit the project's aim is way ambitious, but I believe that with the help of the Internet it is possible to reach people and organizations who feel that the project's goals accord with their own view on the world and wish to contribute their skills and working time to the project. So the answer is - by teamwork.

Stage I

In the first stage the project's website (www.consumerium.org) will be equipped with a discussion forum where people can express their ideas on the system's features and functions, and discuss the suggested features' implementability and necessity. Also in this stage we need to communicate the project to experts of all areas to make sure that we have a versatile group of thinkers and doers from the start.

Founding an association for the project seems realistic because the idea has ignited enthusiasm in people I have told about it. I've been thinking very thoroughly about whether implementing the project on a commercial basis would make sense; the answer is a clear no, so founding an associating looks like a good idea: An association can raise money and acquire software or hardware resources by getting support from members. Additionally, as the functionary of an association it is easier to create contacts to other groups: Companies, associations and government institutions.

Stage II

In the second stage, the technical implementation of the system begins. This work can be clearly divided into four branches.

We need to develop a language, obviously XML-based, which is able to store information about all the products of the world and their producers and forms the basis of all communication within the system.

We need to develop a distributed system for gathering, storing and transmitting information. My suggestion is to implement this in Java so that it can be run on multiple platforms.

We need to develop a wizard-style XML generator that helps individuals or organizations create a consumerium-readable XML description of a product or company anywhere in the world. You can then put the XML document onto your home page and report the URL to the consumerium server which then examines the document and adds a reference to the external document to the database.

We need to develop a Consumer Agent. This is also going to be implemented in Java, because it looks like Java Micro Edition (JME) is going to be the dominating platform in future mobile phones. For the realization of the second stage, there is need for the voluntary work of numerous IT experts and hobbyists. Everybody who's basically interested in contributing is probably interested in the question: Who will own the copyright for the code? At the moment I think that applying the GPL (GNU Public license), which is the leading licensing solution for the Open Source Community, or a modified version of it is the appropriate solution. The GPL doesn't prohibit commercial usage, particularly offering installation and maintenance services, but it prevents companies from claiming ownership of Consumerium's code. Naturally, the people who are most involved in the development process have the best opportunities of later creating commercial activity from the Consumerium project.

Stage III

In the third stage, when the software is almost ready, we will start discussions with wholesalers and retailers about importing the contents of their own databases and information systems into the Consumerium system and about launching a pilot application for public use. A basic condition for the launch of a pilot application is that the technology necessary for identifying a product and wireless networking has to be available on the market, preferably in consumer-priced devices. The ways of identifying a product are:

  1. The most primitive approach is users typing in the product's EAN Code manually into their mobile device.
  2. When mobile phones get equipped with digital cameras, the EAN code can be photographed and sent to an image recognition server, which identifies the product by the label's lines or numbers and sends the information back to the agent.
  3. Shopping carts equipped with bar code scanners that connect to the device using a wireless connection. This is obviously more expensive, but quicker and more reliable, than option 1. Shops would have to be persuaded to buy the scanners (because the system has to be completely free for the consumer), otherwise the system's usage would never reach critical mass.

In this stage, it is essential to reach as many consumers as possible, and tell them what to do so that supermarket chains would participate in the system. When the critical mass of consumers that wishes/demands access to the system from their retailers is reached, the rest will be sorted by market economy. The goal of the third stage is to sign a contract with a major supermarket chain, obligating it to provide the necessary hardware, data connection, and their own product informations, so that a pilot application can be launched.

Stage IV

The fourth stage is the globalization of the system. In this stage, we want to create a global network of Consumerium associations. Each country's association leads and manages the implementation process in their country, taking care of the installation of necessary systems and monitoring information gathering in their area.

The essential goal of the fourth stage is the creation of a international team consisting of reliable operatives who input and update information. The most obvious allies in this stage are NGOs that focus on consumer awareness and responsibility. Other possible allies are the media, especially the contribution of financial journalists to ensure the validity of company information, national and EU consumer security institutions, producers, and resellers.

Juho Ville Heikkurinen