Ingredient List Scanning – A new idea?

Well it’s certainly been awhile since my last post announcing my intention to build the Healthizer app. I’ve been coding my little butt off for my startup company for several months, and as it turns out have had little time left in my schedule for anything else! However with me once I’m interested in something it never quite dies, it just goes on the back burner for a little while…

So now that our startup has published its app (I’ll post that link soon) I finally want to dig in and get on with this plan. Also I need a vehicle to mess around with some new development technologies I’m interested in.

Since I posted the app concept there have been quite a few apps cropping up containing similar functionality to the concept of Healthizer:

Don’t you hate it when you get an idea, and then find out someone else has already run out and done it way better than you ever could have?! Curse this manic business of high tech and all its brilliant people and wonderful apps! However, I believe there is still hope for the Healthizer.

  1. None of the existing apps use OCR technology (Optical Character Recognition – ie. computer reading) to parse ingredient lists. The preferred method out there for product lookup seems to be to scan UPC codes (ie. bar codes) and look up the associated ids in product databases. This method has a few drawbacks that I think would be avoided with my method:
    • it incurs a cost for accessing product databases through services such as Scandit.
    • a successful scan requires that the scanned product be registered in such a database and that the ingredient list in the database is accurate
    • it requires a working Internet connection, which has its own set of issues. For one, while the Internet is ubiquitous, having a good connection to it is still not a guarantee at all times (let me tell you), even in this day and age. Also, accessing the Internet in itself increases the cost of using the app, and slows it down.
  2. Most of these apps are not specifically geared at cancer prevention, with the exception of Think Dirty. Many of the apps are intended to assist shoppers make healthier decisions for weight-loss or lifestyle reasons, which means that the apps rate the healthiness of products based on some criteria. Therefore there is some subjectivity being introduced in their recommendations, and there is a question as to whether the user agrees with the criteria being applied – certainly not a straightforward question. Instead, I’d like to make an app that doesn’t recommend, it only points out to users the existence of a known carcinogen in the product they are considering buying, according to the product’s own manufacturer and lists of known chemicals published by mainstream authorities.
  3. Finally, it’s unclear whether the companies that produce these apps are for-profit companies. If so, there may be commercial motivations inherent in their recommendations. I feel that to gain users’ trust within the highly political fields of food manufacturing and cancer treatment, it’s important for the app to be strictly non-commercial, with a simple, straightforward algorithm, and transparent sources.

So I think there’s still room out there for a very simple, single-purpose app with a slick user experience that can be used very quickly and easily to flag a carcinogen-containing product with next to no fuss or fumbling or having to interpret the results. The main use case would be to scan products as you pick them off the shelf during your weekly shopping trip, so it has to be a streamlined experience.

A New Project – Healthizer

It’s been awhile since my last post on this blog for the simple reason that I’ve joined a start-up company ( as CTO, and life is busy again!

Things are ticking along happily on that project, and now I’m feeling the desire to kick-off another project that’s interested me for some time. In addition I want to make more use of this blog, and see how well I can develop a new idea using this as a public forum. In this age of the Internet everyone’s doing it, so let’s give ‘er a go, eh?

A Big Problem

I’m concerned about the rate of cancer. A number of years ago I had a brush with cancer when a spot was discovered on my thyroid. Needless to say, it was a scary experience, and a few weeks later when I found myself sans-thyroid and cancer-free, I couldn’t quite believe that I had escaped so easily. A good friend of mine around the same time was engaged in a protracted battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma (a battle he won after several grueling years), and when I was diagnosed I naturally assumed that a similar ordeal was in store for me. As it turns out, my experience was relatively painless, and was more or less a thing of the past within a few months, aside from my life-long dependence on synthetic thyroid hormone.

As you would expect that experience ignited my interest in cancer in general, and the modern state of cancer-related medicine. Since that time a couple of things have become evident to me:

  1. The rate of cancer is still increasing
  2. Treatment for cancer is better than ever, and survival rates are also increasing.

So this is mixed news, but even taken together it seems clear to me that we are experiencing a cancer epidemic. The Canadian Cancer society estimates suggest that about a quarter of all people currently alive in Canada will die from cancer (source)! That in my book qualifies as a crisis.

Around the time when my cancer was discovered, I watched a segment on the CBC’s consumer watchdog program Marketplace that has stuck with me over the years. You can see it here – I encourage anyone to spend some time with it:
CBC Marketplace: Chasing the Cancer Answer

In my view it is as relevant today as when it was aired almost a decade ago, and points to a bias in cancer circles towards a focus on treatment rather than prevention. All this got me thinking – what can I and my family possibly do to help reduce our chances of developing cancer?

Low-Hanging Fruit

One of the points highlighted in the Marketplace segment is that scads of consumer products found in your local grocery store have known carcinogens as ingredients! How is this possible? Whatever the reason, it’s happening in every store right now. This seems like some low-hanging cancer-prevention fruit – just avoid products containing these ingredients whenever possible.

That’s the thought that gave rise to my app idea – a simple mobile app that will scan the ingredient list (a legal requirement on any consumer product in Canada) and match them against lists of known carcinogens. This seems like a fairly straightforward app that could serve as a tool for anyone wanting to improve their cancer-savvy grocery choices. I’ve done some preliminary checking around the web to see if this has been done, and so far I haven’t found anything exactly like this – more on that later.

What’s In a Name?

So this app concept needs a name. Here are some candidates, off the top of my head:

  • ShopScan
  • Grocery Inspector
  • Health Guard
  • Healthalizer
  • Healthizer
  • Stop Cancer
  • CancerBuster

Personally, I like “Healthizer”. It’s memorable, easy to understand, and doesn’t limit the future scope of the app. I feel the grocery-related suggestions are kindof boring and forgettable, and the cancer-related ones are too grandiose (like, I don’t actually think that this app will “bust” cancer).

So for now, Healthizer it is. I’d love to hear more suggestions if people have them! Check back for more posts on the development of this new app!