Improving the Traceability of Coffee

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Stephen Vick spoke to an overflowing room about traceability systems for coffee.In a room packed with nearly 60 attendees, the HCDE 521 Winter 2012 Lecture Series took off with a great start by discussing one of the things that Seattle loves most— coffee. Stephen Vick, a 2001 UW graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Human Centered Design & Engineering (HCDE), presented an overview of his involvement with coffee supply chains in developing countries. He explained how data tracking systems have been implemented to benefit the overall process. Such technologies aim to improve four major aspects within the field: sustainability, traceability, transparency, and food security.

To get an understanding of the traditional coffee farming practices, Vick started off by explaining the step-by-step process of coffee production. From picking to fermenting, cleaning to roasting, Vick explained that a lot of the information relating to the different steps of the process is difficult to manage for the farmers themselves. It is rare for many of these countries to have detailed reports or a system that is able to record the steps. Since tracking is important for farmers, more efficient systems must be implemented.

"What's most exciting is that there are still a lot of situations where sites have been doing everything wrong for a hundred years. The technology is also so young that there's a lot of room for improvement."

—Stephen Vick

The Relationship Information Tracking System (RITS) is the first of the systems that Vick introduced to his audience. RITS serves as a traceability program that provides a simple interface for users with limited computer experience. Beyond data tracking, it also contains useful features such as educational videos to show good practices. Cropster.org and TechnoServe are two other traceability systems that Vick brought up during his presentation. Both of these applications also provide efficient information exchange, and also utilize unique ways to record data. TechnoServe, for example, has the capability to use SMS as a simple way for farmers to upload information from their mobile phones. Vick has worked with all three systems in the past and explained that while they make the process more efficient for farmers, they are also beneficial for consumers. The traceability systems allow consumers to be more aware of how their coffee is made, making a big difference for all of those involved in the coffee supply chain.

Stephen Vick's "Traceability Systems for Coffee Farmers: A Key to Sustainability and Food Security" presentation is part of a 10-week seminar focused on current issues in Human Centered Design and Engineering (HCDE 521). To learn more, visit the HCDE 521 Lecture Series site.