Open Source Urban Agriculture Policy

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John Reinhardt’s Open Source Urban Agriculture Policy Approach

John Reinhardt interviewed by Danielle Gould:

'DG: What are your goals with the “Interactive Urban Agriculture Zoning Map” and “Interactive Food Sovereignty Ordinance Map”? Why did you choose mapping as a medium for achieving these goals?

JR: The interactive maps were designed to track the urban agriculture zoning and food sovereignty movements. As an urban planner, you learn that how you communicate data is extremely important, and the clean, easy to use maps provide immediate visual information (i.e. which states have the most ordinances) while making the information easy to access (just click on your state!). For example, by looking at the Urban Ag Zoning map, you can quickly see that there aren’t many policies in the Rocky Mountain Region. It may inspire people in those states who may want to do some digging on their own to see if the policies exist, or even go as far as to propose them if they don’t.

You could say that this fascination with visually-represented data goes back to my GIS roots, but I think it’s also a really effective way for people who have no real interest in how the technology works to just click on their state and get the info they need. In that respect, I think it straddles both sides of food + tech. We’re currently working on drilling down to the ZIP code level, and up to the global scale, but that’s still some time off.

DG: What does “open source data sharing” mean to you? Why is it important?

Open source data sharing means that the data is available for everyone to download, analyze, update, and contribute to. This is extremely important given the high speed of change in technology, and the speed of change in the current world of policy. By keeping the data open source, it can be consistently updated and analyzed to help policy makers make the best decisions possible in real-time.

In addition, by creating a data hub, we hope to help spur creative thinking and foster critical thinking about the policy approaches taken by different state and local governments. Our current maps are not updated in real time and focus as more of a data-hub, but we are looking at ways to push the envelope, and really welcome suggestions for what would make useful tools, maps, and resources.

DG: How are you incentivizing users to contribute data to the maps? What portion of the maps are user contributed data?

We’re hoping that users contribute data because it’s something they really care about, and we’re trying to make it as easy as possible. Users don’t have to register or fill out any complicated forms to submit data. It goes directly into our database system (which is linked to the map), where someone moderates it for quality and accuracy before posting.

Currently, most of the food sovereignty map is user-submitted (we started off with only one local ordinance – Sedgwick, Maine – and the map now includes a dozen or so state and local laws). The urban ag zoning map started from a base dataset, but we’ve had 5-10 new submissions in the week it’s been live.

The urban agriculture/food systems/urban planning community is a very dedicated group (just check out the COMFOOD listserv), so I see Grown in the City’s role as providing easy, well designed, good looking, open source tools for people to share data with.

DG: What excites you the most about the way that tech are being leveraged to affect the food system?

I think what excites me most is how the internet functions. We see all the time the internet can be used as a “flashpoint” for transmitting memes – everything from Charlie Sheen to Rebecca Black can become the talk of the town (or the world) overnight. In a smaller, kinder way, I think we’ve seen this with some really interesting urban agriculture stories. The story on Maine Food Sovereignty has been shared over 1,300 times on Facebook since it was published 10 days ago and was even picked up by Mark Bittman of the New York Times. In that respect, I think new technologies are an incredible media tool for telling the stories we all care about so passionately to a wider audience.

In terms of how we are using technology? Tools such as smart phones, which seem to be in the hands of everyone these days, can be used to collect more and better data about our food system in relatively non-intrusive ways. Just think if everyone was entering information about how much and what type of produce they consumed, how much water they used to water their gardens, or what they were growing in their community gardens? Having such data would allow us to get a much clearer picture of the local food systems around us and what our impacts are. But I think it’s not too far off, given the new tools we’re seeing.

I think the future is one where technology, metrics, and real-time measurement of our impacts is just part of daily life. Whether this is good or bad remains to be seen, but it sure is interesting!" (