Beyond Barcode: Designing Environmental Empowerment
As Spring and Summer roll around once again, you’ll find students back on bright green lawns reading a book or chatting with friends. Most of us wouldn’t think twice before joining them for a bit of sunshine. However, when Paolo Mutia, a Master’s student at the School of Information and the Ford School of Public Policy, sees these lawns and gardens, he can only think of the toxic pesticides potentially hiding underneath the lush green lawn.
Story by Malin Andersson
Paolo believes that by making information on the toxicity of everyday pesticides accessible, consumers can be empowered to make an impact by advocating for their health and protecting the environment. That’s where Beyond Barcode comes in.
At the School of Information, Paolo met fellow graduate students Pratik Mangtani and Yiwen Yang. Though they all were coming from different backgrounds – Pratik from Computer Science and Yiwen from Architecture – all three of them saw their potential as collaborators. Paolo told them about his passion for advocating against harmful herbicides like Roundup. Inspired to make a difference, Pratik and Yiwen quickly adopted his goal.
When they heard about Innovation in Action, Paolo, Pratik, and Yiwen knew they had to take this opportunity to feature their idea and turn their vision into reality. They became Beyond Barcode and began the long but rewarding process of designing an app that would not only make users aware of harmful products but would also empower them to get those very products off the shelves.
“The burden isn’t only on you to parse through articles about active ingredients in order to figure it out,” says Paolo. “We can help you make the best decision possible for your health and the environment.”
Starting From the Ground Up
From the beginning, Beyond Barcode planted themselves in research. As they analyzed the ingredients of common products and interviewed everyday consumers, they recognized how easy it can be to get lost in the swamp of information out there. They realized that a user-friendly app could be just what people need in order to easily and quickly become aware of the shocking toxicity of the retail market.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. continues to allow 72 pesticides for outdoor agriculture that have been banned or completely phased out by the European Union.
For example, Roundup, a weed killer that has a proven connection to pollinator decline and cancer, is still popular in retail stores. Monarchs are teetering on the edge of extinction. These butterflies travel thousands of treacherous miles on their annual migration, laying their eggs along the way to seed the next generation. But toxic weedkiller glyphosate is decimating their breeding habitats and wiping out milkweed, the only food source for their young. Through his work as a campaigner for #RejectRoundup, Paolo advocates for the importance of prioritizing health and the environment over harmful products.
Through their app, Beyond Barcode envisioned an extension of this mission. The three of them got to work sketching the app features and creating storyboards, expanding their knowledge and passion every step of the way.
Yiwen expanded upon the paper model to design an eye-catching and user-friendly app. With his background in Computer Science, Pratik made it possible.
The move from a paper to a digital prototype was particularly rewarding. Paolo encapsulates this feeling, saying, “To be able to see and click on the idea we had just a month or two ago was really cool as the idea manifested.”
Utilizing a scanning feature, users of the app can scan the barcode of a product and read about its ingredients and impact on health and the environment. Additionally, each product is given a score to determine its safety.
It was only by combining their unique expertise that Paolo, Pratik, and Yiwen had a prototype to show and receive real-time feedback on during frequent user interviews. By validating their assumptions and staying open to new ideas, Beyond Barcode realized that they needed to not only inform their users but equip them to make a real difference.
A new and exciting feature began to present itself and Beyond Barcode did not waste time pursuing it.
Making a Difference through Community
Paolo, Pratik, and Yiwen saw an opportunity to empower their user to stand up for their own safety and the health of the environment. What originally began as a feature for users to communicate with each other turned into the potential for greater impact.
“In order to actually make our users feel empowered and give them some ownership, we designed a petition feature in which any user could start or sign a petition,” says Pratik.
“We have connected consumers to the decision-makers who can actually bring about the change they want to see.”
They also added influencers to the Beyond Barcode community to build trust between users and foster an environment in which people can encourage each other to choose what’s best for them.
In April 2022, Paolo, Pratik, and Yiwen pitched their idea at the Innovation in Action showcase. Finally, they were able to share their exciting app with a welcoming community.
Throughout the process of ideating, designing, and creating this app, all three team members realized the importance of understanding your own skillset and appreciating the unique skills of those you work with. By combining their expertise, Beyond Barcode turned a vision into a reality.
Paolo encourages anyone else with an idea like theirs to not be afraid and just start exploring – especially if it is a passion. “Work with an idea that’s exciting to you rather than an idea that you think will fit into someone else’s box. An idea that you’re passionate about will fuel you throughout this work.”
It also doesn’t hurt to work with a great team of good friends, designers, and people like Paolo, Pratik, and Yiwen.
As they move on from Innovation in Action, Beyond Barcode remains an ever-expanding idea. They are looking to scale across multiple industries and further develop their sustainability model. Most importantly, Paolo, Pratik, and Yiwen hope that their idea and ideas like theirs continue to resonate and come to fruition.
“We all want to be empowered by the products that we buy,” Paolo acknowledges. “One day, there will be a movement towards this shopper experience. Hopefully, ideas like ours echo out in the world to create a climate of choosing the best product for your health and the environment.”