I’ve now spent three years working on this project, pushing to get full menu transparency from the catering industry. I’ve been told I’ll fail. Because it’s too hard. Because it’s too big a problem to solve. I don’t agree, and I’ll challenge and push back hard every time I hear those objections. I’d like to take a moment to explore this particular complexity and the ramifications of simplifying the data we use.
Because this is just data, right?
Let’s start with the problem. I know this problem because it’s my problem. And I’m pretty certain its a problem most of you would have come across. I wonder just how many of you have or know someone who has specific dietary needs? It could be food allergies, food intolerances, it could be based on medical reasons, religious grounds or even a lifestyle choice. The point is, the reason is insignificant, but the sheer volume of people with a requirement to avoid ingredients is not.
The current landscape is pretty grim when you try to eat out. People with specific dietary needs, like me, tend to be treated as ‘special’. Friends will often call you ‘fussy’. Having to explain what you can’t have to a stranger in front of an audience just to find out what you might be able to eat can get pretty awkward. People inevitably start to ask questions about what can be very personal information, information that you probably won’t want to discuss there and then. It’s embarrassing. It’s stressful enough, but you feel a burden while everyone waits for you to sort yourself out and place an order. You start to apologise.
I just want to be normal
Imagine not having to be singled out. If you could just rock up and sit down at the table like everyone else, with no fuss.
After all, we celebrate with food, we comfort with food, we socialise over food. It’s central to our culture, to our very existence. We can’t not eat. If you stop eating, you die. It’s that simple.
When food has an issue with you, it’s frightening how easy it is to develop a negative relationship with food. You become prisoner of your own stomach. This is isolating. It’s lonely. It’s depressing.
I just want to enjoy eating out again
Imagine if you could join in with everyone else without having to give it too much thought. Be spontaneous. To be able to eat without fear that this meal might make you ill.
Waiting staff seem to dread the questions you ask. They don’t always have the information to hand and so begins the dance of to-ing and fro-ing from table to kitchen to get the answers. The restaurants fear you. So they do the worst thing imaginable and strip away everything from your dish. It’s punishment.
I just want to eat something tasty
Yet I get handed countless plates of beige. Imagine if I could have a sauce to go with my chicken. Imagine if I actually had a choice on the menu. Imagine if my friends had food envy, wishing they’d ordered my dish, instead of theirs. I just want to know what’s on the end of my fork. Is that really such a big ask when this is just data we’re talking about here?
I’m always being told to simplify the problem by other developers, by potential investors, in fact by anyone who wants to have a discussion about TreatOut. Don’t try to fix it all at once. Just focus on allergens to get something out there. But why allergens? Because that information is already out there. Because that’s what’s regulated, that’s what’s visible, that’s what we know. Because it’s what everyone else in this vertical does. There’s plenty of restaurant apps out there based on allergen tagging. But they’re just not cutting it. It’s not enough. Allergens are just the tip of the problem.
I’m staring at all the hidden complexities that lurk beneath out of sight, hidden from general discussion. We ignore those complexities at our own peril.
Allergen regulation isn’t the real problem is it? The real problem here is that people are individual, different. The problem is that someone could have an issue with any ingredient, regulated, or not.
Complex problems need complex solutions
Sometimes complex problems do actually need complex solutions. As software developers, it’s often the case that we’re encouraged to keep it simple. But simple at what cost? What complexity are we removing? Maybe that complexity is relevant, maybe that complexity is necessary.
Therein lies the real danger when we take something complex and make it simple. We can lose sight of the end goal and often end up building the right product but for the wrong problem.
People are not machines
How do we determine the rules of the software we build? We can’t say to people you can only have issues with these 14 ingredients because those are the ingredients that are regulated. Best not to have any issues with anything else, cos the data ain’t gonna help you. How ridiculous does that sound? How on earth do our bodies know what is and what isn’t regulated?
We joke that tech is going to develop self consciousness and destroy mankind. I think the real danger is that in our pursuit of tech to make things bigger, better, stronger, faster… we are in danger of losing touch with our own humanity, trying to turn ourselves into the machine.
We get so wrapped up in building the tech that we can forget we are ultimately building solutions for people. The body is a finely tuned, highly complex living structure. There is no option to simplify, this isn’t ‘The Cube’ and I’m no Philip Schofield.
Take the MacTwins for example, a perfect example of the complexity we are talking about. They were the chief guinea pigs in gut health research carried out by Tim Spector at Kings College, London. They’re identical twins with 100% same DNA and yet their guts share just 40% of the same microbiota. Two identical people, two completely different guts with completely different needs. This is a biological complexity, not a complexity born out of developers overthinking a problem. This isn’t a complexity a tech team can magic away with brain storming sessions and a pocket full of post-it notes. This is a complexity that is fundamental to our understanding what we are dealing with.
Yet we’re still trying to understand the correlation between gut and brain function and the role that our microbiome plays in our general health and wellbeing. This will touch all parts of the healthcare system, opening up all sorts of possibilities of using food as medicine and taking a more holistic approach to managing our own health on a day to day basis. Since managing my diet (long term modified low FODMAP), I already think of food as my Superpower.
We are what we eat and yet we are not fully informed about what it is we are eating. It’s personalisation that’s desperately needed but we can only deliver personalisation when we start using the right data.
It’s still just data
Let’s look at how everyone else simplifies this problem. Ahh the joys of data scraping, a means to quickly populate an app with data and make it look like you have traction. Great everyone nods their head in approval in theory. But, what assurance can we give that this data is relevant? We don’t check who put it there, or when it was last updated which means no validation. How do we even know if the data is correct?
But this is still just data. I keep banging on with this point, so what do I mean exactly by it’s just data?
Based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair.
Just think about that for a moment. We are building tech that people use to make informed choices on a daily basis. As technologists we have a moral obligation to make sure that we are building technology using not only the right data, but using JUST data.
When we are providing data we need to forge partnerships to make sure that people are taking ownership of their data. We need to make those people undertake to become guardians of their data. That means a need for them to maintain their data, and keep it up to date.
Then, and only then, can we expect people to have any trust in our data.There are no shortcuts here. No simplification.
Embrace the complexity
We need to enhance what it means to be human, we need to embrace the knowledge that we are individual and all the complexity that comes with it. This is more than just data and building software. This is about having passion and belief to solve the big idea. This is about pushing onwards with integrity through the doubts and objections, starting new conversations and engaging others to champion and rally behind the big idea. This is about daring to break away from the norm without fear of complexity, to challenge established ways and search for solutions where no one else is looking.
Because perhaps, just perhaps, that is where the answer is hiding.