The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Jennifer Toney, CEO of WeMakeItSafer, a tech company in the San Francisco Bay Area that makes online tools to help consumers, manufacturers, and retailers communicate about product safety information and recalls. She discussed how her company uses government open data to help save lives, prevent injuries, and create more socially-responsible companies.
Daniel Castro: Why has it been difficult to keep consumers informed about products recalls?
Jennifer Toney: Thousands of products are recalled every year, but for each individual family, only a handful of them, usually fewer than twenty, are relevant. Even if the all product recalls were covered in the news, consumers could not possibly pay attention to all of them. In fact, when even a relatively modest number of recalls are announced in media, a phenomenon referred to as “recall fatigue” quickly sets in, whereby one simply ignores the safety messages. Of course, if consumers are ignoring warnings, keeping them informed becomes an even bigger challenge.
The best way to inform consumers about recalls is to notify them directly when there is a problem with a product that they actually own. This is almost never possible, however, because manufacturers rarely know who owns their products. Retailers, too, are often unable to notify customers for a number of reasons. For example, inventory and point-of-sale systems may not be connected, they may not have customer contact information or transaction data may no longer be available by the time a recall is issued.
The recall notification problem results in effectiveness rates of 20% or less for consumer products; meaning, fewer than 20% of recalled products are ever returned or fixed.
Castro: How does WeMakeItSafer tackle this problem?
Toney: WeMakeItSafer built a Universal Product Registration™ system to bridge the information gaps between manufacturers, retailers, government agencies and consumers. By pulling in data from each of these sources, the system is able to reconcile differences in the information held by each of the stakeholders and determine whether a product in a particular home or in a store’s inventory may have been recalled.
The product registration application for consumers is called “Items I Own.” It enables users to privately register all of their belongings in one place. The system first checks products for past recalls, then monitors daily for new ones. If it identifies a potential problem, “Items I Own” will email the product owner. In this way, Universal Product Registration™ makes it possible for consumers to receive direct notification about recalls that are relevant to them, even if the manufacturer and retailer don’t know that they own the product or are unable to deliver the message.
Castro: How has open data helped you achieve your mission?
Toney: The Universal Product Registration™ system is comprised of three main pieces of technology – data systems, algorithms and user applications. The foundation of everything we do is our data. Although the open government recall data is not robust enough by itself to build a registration system, it was a good starting point and continues to be an invaluable resource for cross-referencing key pieces of information. Without access to information published by government agencies, we would have had to rely solely on data from manufacturers and retailers, which would have slowed the development process a great deal.
Castro: Are there any gaps in the data that you would like the government to make available?
Toney: As part of the recall process, manufactures submit follow up reports that include data regarding how effective a recall was in recapturing or correcting the defective products. Currently, these reports are not in electronic format and must be obtained via a FOIA request. We would like to see these documents made more readily available.
Castro: Who are the main users of your site and what kind of impact has your site had on these groups?
Toney: When we first launched the WeMakeItSafer.com website, we assumed that it would be used mostly by parents of young children and, in particular, moms. While that is a popular demographic, the site is also used equally by dads, as well as many men and women without children.
We frequently receive notes from users who are grateful to have been informed about a recall they otherwise would not have known existed. In addition to this qualitative evidence, we track injury data on every recalled product. This enables us to calculate the probability that an injury will occur if the product owner is not aware of the recall. We estimate that WeMakeItSafer applications have prevented about 3,000 injuries so far.