These days there are huge amounts of ‘big data’ within people’s possession – from their own supply chains to chatter on social media such as Twitter – but the trick is to filter it in such a way that it provides useful information that can be acted upon, said Professor Guy Poppy, chief scientific advisor to the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
Poppy was speaking at a conference on ‘The Future of the Food Industry’ organised by food safety company NSF International at the London offices of legal firm DWF last Thursday (February 11).
He noted that it was crucial that more data was shared between regulators such as the FSA and food companies to provide better insight into what food safety issues were on the horizon, especially given that the UK now imported food stuffs from around 184 different countries around the globe.
‘How do we use that data’
“There is no shortage of data, the question is how do we use that data,” said Poppy.
He noted that by 2020 a huge 38 zettabytes (1021 bytes) of data would be generated globally, and better approaches would be needed to interrogate it to identify that was of most use.
“Data only becomes valuable when you turn data into information; information is assimilated into knowledge; knowledge helps generate wisdom; and wisdom enables decisions and actions,” said Poppy.
Already, said Poppy the world’s biggest food company Nestlé was carrying out around 100M analytical tests a year and was investigating how it could make better use of this information. The FSA was in discussion with Nestlé, Mars and retailer Sainsbury, about how they might share information with the FSA and others with the aim of improving global food safety, said Poppy. “I am a strong advocate of open data.”
The FSA was also working with various other organisations, such as The Alan Turing Institute, the Open Data Institute, Digital Catapult and Agrimetrics, the new centre for agricultural innovation at Rothamsted Research, which have specialisms in big data, to help the FSA develop strategies for analysing this information, he added. “I am very passionate about this, this is the future,” he claimed.
Poppy also described a model that the FSA had developed for analysing information posted on Twitter to help it predict where the next norovirus outbreaks were likely to occur, so that it and local authorities could better target their food safety activities.
However, Poppy recognised that the FSA would be unlikely to be able to attract sufficient numbers of people with the requisite skills in predictive analytics to do this work alone. He said the FSA would need to work with other centres of excellence in this field, such as University College London’s Big Data Institute.
Elsewhere, the FSA is already working closely with researchers at the Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York on three social media projects. One project is looking at food fraud, another is looking at spacial data analytics and specifically Food Hygiene Rating Scheme data, and the third is looking at the photos that people post to give an idea of how they behave in kitchens, he noted.
Jude Mason, director for consulting and technical services at NSF, described her company’s use of predictive analytics to help its clients make better use of the vast amounts of data available to them. This would enable them to predict situations rather than being forced to react to them when they occurred, she said.
It necessitated making use of what she called ‘predictors’ or ‘key data factors’ so that companies could focus their attention on sites that were at greater risk. It’s about “looking for clues that inform the future”, she said. “It’s about looking at how we can use that data to mitigate those risks and also to make sure that time, money and resources is effectively placed into the right area.”