The Price Network

A Big Data Answer to Food Scarcity

Soloff's ambitions are broader than helping a handful of investment bankers get an edge on Mexico City retail. He sees his company as something like a blend of Google Street View and the Consumer Price Index: a window into the world's stores to help us learn about the experience of the people behind the prices.

In the thousands of photos uploaded to Premise each day, literally seeing where food is out of stock in, say, Chennai, India, or which Rio bodegas have lines stretching out the door, can help policymakers see the beginnings of food scarcity before violent riots hit the streets. "Look at corn riots in Mexico, the food strikes in Egypt, and Syria," he said. "Water and food scarcity has become a huge story.”

I ask him about Indian inflation, which famously began with the skyrocketing price of onions. Soloff opens his laptop and swings it around to face me. There is the Premise chart of Indian onion inflation: the steady day-to-day creep, the peak, and the slow, jaggedly decline.

He takes me to the home page for India's Food and Beverage inflation. At the top is the key graph of price movements going back to May. 

More than 300,000 food details—each tagged for location, time, and price—make up this index, including 27,000 observations of grains and 81,000 photos of vegetables. Double-clicking on the vegetables category takes us to a separate page for vegetable (including onion) inflation.

At the bottom of the page is the array of vegetable photos, which make up th data. Premise isn't just an inflation report, Soloff says again. It's map that tells you where prices are going up—“city by city, neighborhood by neighborhood, store by store”—to help governments and agencies track the tremor of inflation from its epicenter. Each vegetable observation comes with a price and a drop-pin on a map, to show Premise exactly where prices are moving and where they're not moving.

"From our 7,000 observations in India over last few weeks, I can go down to Chennai, I can say, when did [prices] start spiking in Chennai versus Mumbai and Calcutta?” Soloff says.

“One of the overall lessons we've learned is not just that government data is wrong, but that it's a blunter instrument than people need. And by being so blunt, people might be making wrong decisions.”

The Android Network

With the government shutdown, the country could miss at least one inflation report. Most Americans will notice nothing, but monthly reports on prices and jobs influence economic policy that affects the national economy. The Federal Reserve’s recent, surprising decision to continue buying bonds at the same, accelerated rate shocked investors, but it was driven by the sort of data points that Soloff and Premise want to make more available.

It's possible to corral a team of data collectors around the world thanks to Android, which could be the closest thing we've ever had to a universal operating system. Before smartphones, hundreds of people taking photos around the world was just sightseeing. Now it just might provide the backbone of a dataset that rivals international governments.

"People are plugged into a global infrastructure in a way they never were before," Soloff said. "In many places, people walk around with a computer, and they can be paid incrementally for it, on their way to school or their jobs. This is how Android in the last two years has become an amazing story, not just in the U.S., but around the world. It's become a global operating system. It allows us to synchronize their work."

***

In Sao Paulo, Luis Garcia is a member of a motley team of men and women, including part-time-workers, unemployed workers, and students ranging from 18 to early 50s who discover Premise on sites like Craigslist. Some Brazilians have quit their jobs to document prices for Premise full-time, Garcia said in an email:

One worker was an event and wedding photographer in his 40s. He lives in a very poor neighborhood and he has family. He answered the ad and now is making double what he was making before and working less, so he has more time to help with his family.  His wife called the city manager to thank him for the difference that they were making.

When he and his team go to bed, a student in New Delhi is waking up, packing his smartphone, and stopping by a market before class to take pictures of a vegetable stand.

Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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