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Bar code apps

February 15, 2011

With the explosion of the smartphone app market, German companies have set the bar for greater transparency and accountability.

A smartphone shown next to a bar code andsuperimposed over a map with icons on it
fTRACE shows users which farm their meat came fromImage: Toennies Fleisch

One of the fledgling technology trends currently gaining momentum is bar code scanner applications for smartphones.

Using the camera to focus on a bar code, you can get up-to-date price comparisons, reviews, and nutritional information - directly onto your mobile phone, while you're at the supermarket.

The smartphone application called fTRACE was recently launched by the German meat producer, Toennies Fleisch, which supplies meat to the supermarket Aldi-Süd. The app can currently scan six different pork products, but Toennies hopes to increase that number substantially this year.

Credibility and transparency

Markus Eicher, Toennies press spokesperson explained the level of detail into which their scanning application goes.

"With fTRACE, you get not only when did the product leave the slaughterhouse at what day, it shows you at what time. It goes back to the origins - from which farms did we get the pork, and so on," Eicher said.

A smartphone camera screen shows a bar code in focus
Lots of data can be saved in bar codesImage: barcoo

While the actual names of the farms are not available due to privacy protection, consumers can find out which region the meat came from.

Since fTRACE was launched in January this year, they've had 10,000 hits on the website and more than 2,000 requests about products.

The motivation behind this application is consumer trust, Eicher said.

"We want the consumer's trust for our products and we will only get that if we have the credibility that the quality and the safety of our products is high class;" he said. "And the best way to show this quality is to give as much information as we have: to give a high level of transparency."

Critical consumption

While fTRACE is working on very small sector of the market, the Berlin-based start-up barcoo has taken a broader approach. According to co-founder Benjamin Thym, barcoo's mission is to enable critical or sustainable consumerism by making information accessible via their free smartphone application.

With the recent dioxin scandal in Germany, transparency has become a hot topic both for consumers and manufacturers. Less than 24 hours after they heard about the dioxin scandal, barcoo, had made it possible for people to check individual eggs in the supermarket.

"People were able to look up in the supermarket if this certain egg is on the watch-list or on the blacklist or not," Thym said. "So we were really fast because we thought that's like definitely a necessity that consumers really have to have that information."

A photo-illustration of eggs labeled with the word Dioxin
barcoo offered individual egg scans shortly after the dioxin scandal broke across GermanyImage: picture alliance/dpa

The way barcoo works is it links products to test reports from more than 300 different independent sources including PC World, Greenpeace, Rank a Brand and Stiftung Warentest, which is Germany's leading consumer product testing organization, as well as giving the user a price comparison, including local retailers, and reviews.

More than 13 million supermarket and electronics products can be scanned using barcoo.

Each product is ranked with one of three colored spots. Green is the best or most sustainable. Next is yellow, and then red, which is the worst. Next to each spot you can see which source gave that particular ranking and find out more information about why they gave it.

"You can always click on details and see that information is from Rank A Brand about Hewlett Packard - what do they say? How good and bad is Hewlett Packard if it comes to climate stuff, environment stuff and social stuff?" Thym explained.

Each company is ranked across their whole product range according social and environmental criteria.

"If you talk about big companies, for example Siemens, you can't only look on the green telephone line, you have to look at the whole group and you have to realise they are building nuclear power plants as well," he said. "So that has to be part of the ranking"

Raising the bar for accountability

A smartphone shows information based on the bar code of a can of food
barcoo is providing access to third-party information about products on users' phonesImage: barcoo

More than 2.2 million people have downloaded the barcoo application, which is also now available in France and the UK. Mobile expert, Christophe Räthke is the co-founder of Mobile Monday - the largest global network and community of professionals from the mobile internet industry.

Räthke said that apps like barcoo and fTRACE will become increasingly important because they mean accountability.

"Companies that fail to follow this accountability, that can't show where their products were made, if they were made under fair circumstances, will have tremendous difficulties selling their products, versus companies who comply with these standards," Räthke told Deutsche Welle.

But bar code scanners aren't just for product comparison or accountability. Räthke said they can also be used to get up-to-date bus timetable information, or to authenticate essential products.

"Think of Africa where it's really important to distribute medication, for example AIDS medication, however one in four packages are counterfeit. So how can you make sure that what you're buying is actually life-saving - the real thing?" Räthke said, adding "One of the ways to do that is to recognize the packaging - any signal, any number or bar code on it - to make sure that this is actually the medication you want."

Of course there will always be a struggle between counterfeiters and the authorities, but Räthke said that this technology has clear advantage in addressing the problem.

"The good thing is that a product like a bar code scanner on a mobile phone, because it's always connected to the data network, to the cloud, can constantly be updated," Räthke said.

Rather than buying a new program every time the counterfeiter comes up with a new strategy, Räthke explained that this technology will work in a similar way to that of a spam filter or virus filter you'd find on a computer, in that it will automatically update.

A smartphone is shown in front of a table filled with food items
Smartphone apps can be remotely updated, a feature useful for combatting counterfeitersImage: barcoo

The future is about filtering information

In the future, Räthke predicts that such technology won't just be about making information available, but more importantly it will be about filtering that information in a way that's relevant to you.

"I think a much more likely application of this technology is you telling the application before what you're looking for, for example certain ingredients that you don't like or can't deal with, and the device only giving you an alert when that shows up," he said.

Whether it's company transparency, getting the best deal on a computer printer or finding out which type of muesli has the least amount of fat, Räthke said that it won't be long before apps like these become a part of our everyday lives.

"Bar code scanners are part of a much larger phenomenon which is interpreting reality or your environment in a way that makes more sense for you," he said.

While environment or social issues might not appeal to everyone, Räthke said we all have something that is important to us.

"For some people who have allergies it's really like vital to know if there's certain ingredients in food. Each one of us has one topic where he'd always like to know more about, be it if its eco-friendly, if it's a green product or if certain ingredients are in it - or if certain technology has been used," Räthke said.

While Räthke predicts that it's only a matter of time before this technology will be used all over the world, given that not everyone has a smartphone yet, it could be still a few years away.

Author: Cinnamon Nippard
Editor: Stuart Tiffen

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