Category Archives: Nutrition

How to Grocery Shop in Shanghai

Another update from China. Thanks to the Great Firewall, I’m stuck in a Web 1.0 world of email and blogging.

Our group spent the day conducting ethnographic interviews of food sellers and consumers in a wide variety of contexts. We met with restaurant managers, supermarket shoppers, rice shop owners, and sidewalk crab hawkers. We interviewed people from several age brackets, to learn about the unique but also shared habits and concerns regarding food in China.

It’s hard to understate the level of concern around food safety. The elderly we spoke to actively avoid eating outside of the house, at any time, because of safety concerns. People who raise their own chickens and eggs take comfort in knowing that the food is not only fresh, but also safe.

Supermarkets offer a wide range of processed carbohydrates in shiny packaging while promotional specials blare out of speakers. Major brands offer a trusted name to wary consumers. They also offer a range of imported fruits from all over the world: apples from Washington state, bananas from Chile. The supermarkets do not even bother trying to compete with local produce markets, an interesting behavior I’ve also seen in Liberia, where Lebanese-owned supermarkets complement fresh produce at traditional market stalls. Traditional and local crops are fresher and cheaper at traditional markets, and consumers shop at both types of market for to combine their needs. A weekly trip to the supermarket provides a bounty of shelf-stable goods and supplies, while the more perishable items can be found at small vendors closer to home. Given this split in offerings, there might be potential to get some of the local market supply chain into the larger supermarkets, the way Target has introduced fresh groceries, and Walmart and Whole Foods have incorporated local offerings into their national supply chains.

Restaurants signal their quality by posting licenses and certifications at the entrance. Meat and seafood are considered fresh if it’s still alive in a cage or tank at the market. One of our group members said she never sees people buy fish at one market, because it’s already dead, and therefore not as fresh as it could be.

Local vendors are creative in augmenting their offerings. A woman selling live crabs also offers bath towels (which we purchased, to augment our hostel’s offerings). A vegetable seller gets higher profit margins on the fried turnip cakes she cooks while watching over the produce.

We’ve generated a wide spectrum of ideas, and begun to qualify them on axes of potential scale and the amount of time required to implement. We then bucketed them into a handful of themes, which emerged rather organically across our many post-it notes:

  • Markets (the physical place – e.g. a seed market)
  • Distribution of food, to improve the supply chain from producer to consumer
  • Building integration (e.g. vertical farming)
  • Sharing and coops offer communal opportunities
  • Our island’s surrounding waterways, polluted as they are, offer unique food distribution opportunities.
  • The branding of the island and its products in the mind of Shanghainese

Tomorrow we jump into full ideation and selection mode, and begin to tear into a specific proposal.

Designing Urban Food Systems in Shanghai

I’ve joined the Media Lab’s Changing Places group for a week in China to design the future of sustainable cities in Shanghai.

China presents enormous challenges and huge opportunities, all at a dizzying scale. 300 million Chinese, the population of the entire United States, will move to urban areas over the next 20 years. 20 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities are in China. Only 1% of China’s 600 million urban residents have access to clean air, as measured by EU standards. Anyone serious about climate change, human welfare, and other challenges of the 21st century must consider China’s role.

We’ve joined up with students from Aalto University in Finland and Tongji University in Shanghai. It’s sort of like the Wizarding Cup in Harry Potter, with three nations of mages converging to meet and work together. Our Powerpoint slidedecks paint similar utopian cityscapes comprised of mixed use city blocks, local food production, and chic cyclists. We’re moderating these dreams with what we learn of Shanghainese culture and the built environment already in place.

Our groups are broken into five areas of urban sustainability:

  • Food systems and urban farming
  • Energy
  • Transportation
  • Housing and buildings
  • Macro-scale urban planning

Our worksite is a small banana-shaped island in the Huangpu River, separated from the rest of the city by a canal. It’s essentially a 3.5 kilometer brownfield, full of former and current industrial sites. A shipyard occupies much of the land. Any food we grow here is going to require imported topsoil or aeroponically-delivered mist.

The government has requested that we propose new designs for the island, and is in the process of constructing a subway stop to better connect it with the rest of the city. The subway stop represents new energy, and likely a sharp spike in traffic and land values.

We’re struggling to determine how seriously our proposals will be taken, as well as the degree of freedom we can exert in redesigning the island. It’s certainly not a blank slate, but at the same time, as many as 50% of the existing structures could be torn down to make better use of the land. The island is open for new urban experiments, and the government seems receptive in that these innovations could attract further investment and development to the somewhat dreary existing landscape. Our professor, Kent Larson, is encouraging us to think big, and establish dramatically progressive goals. Perhaps the island will be made car-free, or produce 50% of its food locally, or go completely carbon neutral.

I’ve spent the semester in the urban food systems group. It’s an opportunity to work in several areas of passion, from nutrition to local food to city environments. Our group has investigated a variety of ideas, including aeroponic vertical farming systems, a social network and identity campaign to unite the nascent class of urban farmers, and a buy-one, give-one urban farming kit subsidizing agriculture in informal settlements. But we’re eager to design a realistic urban food system that will scale, and not remain confined to designers’ concept videos.

In true Media Lab spirit, my group is comprised of an extremely interdisciplinary group of designers, venture capitalists, artists, and community organizers. Each of us brings unique skillsets and experience, and also ambitions. Fortunately, we’ve combined enthusiasm with agility, and not become too married to any one proposal, because the local situation is quite different than the LEED-certified condo buildings many popular urban farm concepts take as a prerequisite. Since the beginning of the semester, we’ve kept an eye on those complicating human factors like income, cultural norms, and reaching meaningful scale.

Study Grader

For my final Participatory News assignment (and because one can never have too many projects), I’m going to try to build this semi-automated grading rubric for shoddy science journalism over the next couple of weeks:

I’m interested in nutrition, and health in general. As a result, I’ve read a lot of really shoddy nutrition and health news over the years. I’ve noticed that the mistakes journalists make usually involve coverage of a single scientific study. For example, correlation is presented as causation, making us all a little dumber. You can see for yourself over at Google News’s Health section, where you can see a variety of takes on the same study results. A study on the mental benefits of expressing one’s feelings inevitably produces the clickbait headline, in one source, that Twitter is better than sex.

What if readers and journalists had a semi-automated grading rubric they could apply to media coverage of medical studies and drug development?

I started looking around, and found that science journalists are concerned with these problems. Veterans like Fiona Fox at the Science Media Centre have even shared some specific red flags for the skeptical observer. I was also fortunate enough to meet with two of our classmates (who also happen to be Knight Science Fellows), Alister Doyle and Helen Shariatmadari, who, in addition to significant personal experience, pointed me to great additional resources:

I’ll also be meeting with science writer Hannah Krakauer tomorrow.

I’m pulling out as many “rules” (in the software sense) as I can from these recommendations, and will then attempt to build a semi-automated grading rubric for these types of articles. It’s important to note that there will still be user involvement in producing the score.

HubSpot's Website Grader
(click image to expand)

I hope to present the results in the spirit of HubSpot‘s series of tools for grading website marketing, books, and Twitter authority. The tools themselves vary in utility, but the format of the results embeds an educational layer into the score review (unlike closed-algorithm services like Klout). I am more interested in training journalists and readers to develop a keen eye for the hallmarks of high- or low-quality science reporting than the actual numerical score on a given article. By asking for readers’ involvement in scoring an article, I might be able to augment the automatic grading with human input, but also help teach critical thinking skills.

Down the road, it’d be interesting to incorporate other journalism tools. rbutr integration could allow us to pull from and contribute to crowdsourced rebuttals of misinformation, while Churnalism would let us scan the articles for unhealthy amounts of press release.

What would a nutritional label for the news look like?

Cross-posted from the Center for Civic Media blog.

The standard US FDA nutrition label is well-known here in the states because it is both consistent (for better or worse) and ubiquitous: you’ll find it on almost all packaged foods, excluding certain foods like fresh meat (until 2012) and fresh baked goods (creating an opening in the market for cupcake detectives).

As we consider the equivalent of a nutritional label for information consumption, I’d like to strike a balance between the consistent, widely-recognized FDA label and the far more creative, dynamic approaches to visualizing information all over the internet.

Our MediaRDI project is underway, and we’ll have two classes of “newstritional” information to display (don’t worry, I won’t use that word again). Our first phase will be to display information about a given news provider, such as the New York Times or CNN. A news consumer such as yourself could see, at a glance, what sort of topics a source provides, and what you might be gaining or missing by reading it exclusively. This could also help professional journalists by visualizing what they’re covering and what they’re missing – they could even advertise their breadth of coverage or depth in a given topic.

Further down the road a bit, we might focus on visualizing the news consumption of actual individuals across their entire media diet. First, we’d have to track media consumption across web, podcasts, TV, newspaper, Twitter, and so on, and then we’d have to parse and visualize it. This phase might be most exciting to the most people, especially if we can make it easier and prettier to display aggregate information consumption.

Visualizing Media by News Provider

One example that immediately jumps to mind is an old favorite, the treemap visualization of Google News (Markos Weskamp went on to bring us Flipboard).

screenshot of

How it’s done:

“Google News automatically groups news [s]tories with similar content and places them based on algorithmic results into clusters. In Newsmap, the size of each cell is determined by the amount of related articles that exist inside each news cluster that the Google News Aggregator presents. In that way users can quickly identify which news stories have been given the most coverage, viewing the map by region, topic or time. Through that process it still accentuates the importance of a given article.

“Newsmap also allows to compare the news landscape among several countries, making it possible to differentiate which countries give more coverage to, for example, more national news than international or sports rather than business.”

This approach is interesting for a couple of reasons. Treemaps are great at visualizing distributions of information in a constrained layout. They also happen to resemble the traditional newspaper column layouts we know and love. Here’s a mockup I did with LabGrab’s treemap of science news:

Sample visualization of science news in treemap format

This visual format could be used to display the categories of news offered by a single source. The name of the news source could remain in the familiar masthead location. We could also add a dynamic slider on the right to allow the user to adjust the timeframe of news coverage represented in the treemap. A user could compare how this news provider’s coverage distributes over the last few years versus the last few weeks.

A great way to visualize the depth and breadth of topics in the news might be stream graphs, like this view of box office returns by the New York Times:
NY Times Movies Streamgraph

As Nathan says, they look sort of like latte art. Check out Lee Byron’s Streamgraph generator on GitHub.

I’m particularly interested in what happens when you restrict the area of a Streamgraph to something relative, like visualizing 100% of the news in a given paper, creating a Stacked Area Graph. This form allows you to see how one category of data affects another:
Stacked Area Graph

If we’re interested in displaying the geographic reach (or lack thereof) of a given news source, it’d be great to be able to show a heatmap of the world, with intensities representing news about those areas. We’re not necessarily able to accurately say which articles cover which geographic areas yet, but I’d enjoy this visual if I were looking to expand my international news consumption (just as the Where I’ve Been Facebook app set off a tidal wave of users visually charting where they’ve traveled and where they’d like to visit).

heatmap of continents
Heatmap image by igrigorik shared under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

Another approach to the world map visualization is the telling visual Alisa Miller used in her TED Talk about our news diets:

world map of our news consumption

It makes one think to actually see that, as far as our news diet goes, huge swaths of our planet and fellow humanity don’t even exist to us.

Visualizing News by Personal Consumption

Given that information consumption is an exercise of the mind, first and foremost, it might also be fun and useful to display a treemap in the form of a human brain. I imagine I’d be compelled to change my habits if I could see that a large chunk of my mental intake consisted of iPhone 5 rumors.

a visual of media consumption projected onto the brain

Original brain image shared under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.


Of course, a pie chart is a simple and great way to display percentages of a whole. Maybe we put it in a stopwatch housing to gently remind the user that the data represents how they’re spending their time, for better or worse.

a pie chart in a stopwatch
Original image created by lookang shared under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

One of the most useful personal information tools I use is Sure, they get every detail of my financial data, but I’m not convinced the banks didn’t have this anyway. At least with Mint I, too, get to see what my consumer profile looks like over time. Mint was wise enough to realize that financial information can be pretty boring if left to programs like Quickbooks, and has therefore prioritized visually attractive displays and interfaces. Perhaps that’s why Intuit bought Mint for $170 million.

Mint helps individuals view their personal finances from a number of angles. First, you load all of your financial accounts, including checking, savings, loans, and credit cards. Having everything in one place allows Mint to aggregate every transaction, eliminate duplicates, and provide an at-a-glance overview of your complete financial record.

Replicating this for media consumption would likely require plugins and devices for the myriad ways we consume media, but wouldn’t be impossible. A browser extension and Twitter client could automatically log time spent with various news (like RescueTime), although certain media might require manual logging using a mobile app (like going to see a movie).

Mint also lets users set a monthly budget by spending category. This method could certainly be applied to media consumption. The budgeted categories of media and amount of time allotted to them are entirely up to the individual’s unique goals. Here’s a mockup of what this might look like:

mockup of information consumption goals

You can also see your spending, by category, on pie and bar graphs:

Things get interesting as you dive into the compare-by-city and compare-by-state features:

bar graph comparison of individual spending to average state spending

Of course, not everyone has the time or inclination to dive in this deeply. For this reason, when you first log in, Mint serves up important alerts based on your activity:

Alert notifications from

Mint also selects and offers additional financial products depending on your activity. While I don’t need another credit card, I might be interested in a subscription to The Economist if I’m trying to bulk up on my international news diet.

credit card offers from based on usage

Lastly, as we’re considering personal metrics, we should also look at FitBit and Nike Plus and how they display fitness information. Both services are loved, not only because they track and display your personal metrics, but because they build in motivational tricks that exploit human psychology to encourage healthy habits.

FitBit LED flowerLike Mint, FitBit offers in-depth analytics for true data hounds, but also an at-a-glance display of your personal metrics. In practically every review I’ve read, the FitBit device is lauded for the little blue LED flower.

Sure, FitBit’s sensors capture all sorts of data that can later be uploaded to and analyzed with their web service, but the immediate payoff for wearing the thing is a Tamagotchi-style flower that thrives or withers based on how much you move or sit. I’d be willing to bet that concerns for the flower’s health motivate more people than the number on a chart of a web service.

Nike Plus’s primary motivational force is peer pressure. At first, the promotional video offers “an endless parade of information” about you and your runs, and the service does offer maps, metrics, and exercise plans. But sports are competitive, and Nike Plus rightly focuses on the social element. You can directly challenge (or cheer on) friends who also use Nike Plus, not to mention brag on Facebook and Twitter.

Do you have more ideas on how to best display the numbers behind our news? Let us know in the comments, if you would. The nice thing about the MediaRDI project is that this data will be open, so designers far more talented than myself could create visually compelling interfaces for exploring our personal information metrics.