Mike Daconta | Safe consumer products require trusted information

Reality Check--commentary

As the Holiday Season is upon us, our minds turn to good cheer, presents ... and safety? Unfortunately, given the recent spate of consumer product recalls due to the likes of lead in children's toys, contaminated pet food and toxic toothpaste, consumers are worried about what they buy and looking to the government for help. And the help they most want is accurate labeling of products.

In a recent survey, 30 percent of consumers read product labels 'much more often' than last year. Why is this important? Simple ' consumers want transparency via information. Grocery shoppers never visit the farms where the food is grown; instead, they must trust that the USDA symbol means what it implies. In the same way, consumers of stocks never visit the company boardroom; instead, they must trust that the reported financial statements are accurate. Understanding the information on labels and what it implies garners the trust of the consumers.

This is why, given the controversy over Chinese products, some consumer groups are demanding mandatory 'Country of Origin Labeling' (COOL). This has even become a campaign issue raised by John Edwards in the presidential election. This controversy is due to the amount of detail required to verify the origin of food products, the cost of such labeling and whether the benefits outweigh those costs. Despite such politicized controversies between the free-trade and protectionism lobbies, a recent Consumer Reports poll revealed that 92 percent of consumers want country-of-origin labeling. Thus, the people have spoken and what they want is the 'right' information. Let's now turn to how we deliver that.

In data management terms, a country-of-origin label is akin to lineage metadata establishing the original source of a data item. Lineage is a trace of ancestry (of people or systems) that has given rise to a specific target item (person or thing). The lineage of both food products and data is the linchpin to trusting those items. So lineage metadata, along with other forms of description, is how we manage these physical products. And, that information is virtual, not physical. The paradox here is that to trust physical products, which are tangible, we must trust information, which is virtual. And to trust our information we need to produce it as if it was a physical, tangible product. How do we do this? Emulate what works. In other words, create an information production process mirrored on a physical production process. Doing so will give you a clear line of sight from your content to the consumer by organizing it in catalogs and discovering it with context.

How will this keep us safe? Consumer safety based on physical inspection simply does not scale ' too few inspectors chasing too many products. The answer is industry standards and transparent, trusted information to meet those standards. Just as Sarbanes-Oxley seeks to increase transparency in public companies by making financial statements a trusted information product, we can create trusted-information products that increase the transparency of foreign and domestic manufacturers. And that is the real reason consumers want labels ' because the label is not just information; it is a view inside a complex process. In summary, we see how virtual quality breeds physical quality and treating information as products delivers both.

Michael Daconta is the former metadata program manager for the Homeland Security Department and the author of 'Information As Product: How to Deliver the Right Information to the Right Person at the Right time'. E-mail him at mdaconta@oberonassociates.com.

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