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Q&A: Ed Dowding on Sustaination 'the Dating Site for Food'

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Following the recent launch of Sustaination I was able to talk with its creator Ed Dowding. The 'dating site for food', connects food producers with local businesses to foster communities and help small farms exist whilst in competition with the big supermarkets. We talk about the difficulties of making a simple to use system that still has the richness and complexity that makes it useful, how the site came to be a launch project on Peoplefund.it, and what they plan to implement in the future.

The site doesn't just put producers in contact with consumers, it also allows users to form supply chains that allow for transport of goods much further than a producers normal distribution range.

So how did you get involved with Peoplefund.it?
I called up Nick Underhill because they have something called Freerange Review which is a directory site of producers and shops that produce and sell quality local-ish food. I figured that if I wanted to succeed I really needed someone big and with a public presence to work with. There's a big critical mass thing in any public network, especially the food network, that if you're trying to join lots of dots then you really want to join as many as you can as quickly as you can. So I wanted someone a bit more substantial to throw some weight behind it. So I got talking to Nick and he told me about Peoplefund.it as well.

What is it the site offers you that other crowd-funding sites don't?
What's nice about that is because you can volunteer time and skills as well as money. That's really useful to us because we really need people on the ground who can go into businesses and say "Have you heard about [Sustaination]?" It's easier if someone friendly and passionate, and ideally one of their normal consumers can go in and say "This is cool."

Being able to have that explicit asking for time is taking it on a notch. Things like Kickstarter don't do it in and of itself.

Now that the site has launched and people can start lending their support, what are you working on?
What we're doing is concentrating on building the platform and making it easier to extend that. We're going along the approach that if we get a crap-load of really cool data in one place and put in the frameworks to make it useful for businesses then the developers can extend [it], building their own applications and start analysing the data that we've got to add value to it. Then people get to own what they've created. It makes that really firm ecosystem of involvement. A bit like Shopify.

Shopify?
Shopify is an ecommerce platform, people can build extra little widgets and services that they can plug into it. They can then sell to people using the Shopify platform. So, for 50p a month you get a nice little coupon system, or track shares, or something that ties it into Facebook.

So what data do you have entered at the moment?

We've got about 60 - 70,000 businesses in places already.

Wow! Is that from people who've registered interest already?
I wish! No this is from publicly available databases. It's more we've got the data working to be claimed than we've got 60,000 pre-registered users.

Even so, that means you've got a lot of data to visualise.
oh yeah, the maps are looking cool. We've been doing some sample stuff, prototyping, and it's neat.

Are the supply chains visible now?
Yeah, that's the sort of thing we've been doing. Unfortunately we don't know for sure what connections people have got. That's another thing we're asking, for people to pop down to their shop, or pop down to their pub and ask "Can you tell me five people that you buy from?" Then enter those connections in. Then you'll have the pub as a dot linking out to five separate farms, then you can start mapping the food network more effectively. Those we've got look cool, but so far we've only put in dummy data.

What other things can you use the data for, besides creating supply chains?
You can start calculating all sorts of other stuff on top of it: where distribution hubs should be, looking at national averages and regional shortfalls; how to make the local and regional networks more efficient; or if you've got two distributors 50 miles apart whether you can get them to share delivery trips and so on. That's part of the reason that we're building it in a platform style, so that people can extend it to work out lots of this stuff. And save us lots of the programming stuff. Though we couldn't help ourselves, we just wanted to play.

How will you be making money back from it?
Because we're trying to encourage local trading, and the standard definition of local is about 30 miles, if you want to [contact anyone] in less than 10 miles that's totally free. That just makes sure that we help out people with vegetable gardens and people who are starting out and want to scale up slowly over a couple of years. But if you want to be found up to 30 miles away we have a really low rate, we haven't worked it out yet but £20 a year - that sort of thing. If you want to do more than 30 miles, and communicate with people more than 30 miles away then we'll charge you a bit more and so on and so on. Say, if you want to use bulk contact tools and things that make it easier to do your job, managing more clients and things [like that]. It's designed to work to reflect the scale of the operation the business is running. So, essentially, you're going to be able to afford it and it's going to give you value in proportion to your scale.

What difficulties have you come across?
You can see why it's so hard to do, when you start designing it making it simple enough for everyone to use. You've got that trade off between simplicity and that lack of granularity, when you're searching for something you really want to be able to filter it down and put in all the specific criteria like you do on eBay. To get that kind of granularity on the filter side you've got to get that data input as well. And if you're trying to say to the people, who are already too busy running a small farm or a pub that's struggling to make ends meet "Hey, can you spend two hours filling in your profile so we can help you out a little bit?" It's a bit of a hard sell. It's been a challenge making it as possible as we can whilst still making it useful.

How are you tackling this?
We're going to have a very flexible taxonomy so you can put in whatever you like and for every additional term that's added we cluster those names under different types of food, so we know Cox is a type of apple. Which means that we can then start doing suggestions. If they search for Cox's and we don't have it, we know it's an apple and we can suggest a different sort of apple. If you look for mango we can go "Well there aren't any locally grown mangos but there are locally grown peaches"

Because we're using graphing database that allows us to know the distance between geographical locations and the number of nodes and hops between those - in the same way we can give the information to know that a peach is more like a mango than an apple is - so we can make suggestions of availability to people based on what's around them.sustain
Do you want people to stop importing foreign fruits?
We don't want to stop people eating mangos, I mean mangos are awesome, and bananas are lovely. You can import them and that's fine, it's the case of saying let's make sure we import the bananas and not the apples.

You can find out more at Sustaination's website, and you can get involved here.