Canadian company develops smartphone app to help McGill researchers tackle global food insecurity

JRS VirtualStudio Inc.
October 08, 2019
By JRS VirtualStudio Inc.
Technology will play a key role in conquering global food insecurity, and Canadian agri-tech developer JRS VirtualStudio Inc. has teamed up with researchers at McGill University to develop a new mobile app that will help answer important questions about the diets of people living in marginalized communities worldwide.

The iNutri app enables users to collect information about the nutritional value of the food they eat simply by taking a picture of their daily meals using the camera on their mobile device.

Developed by Guelph-based JRS VirtualStudio Inc., the iNutri app is being field tested this fall in Bolivia, Laos, Thailand, Zambia and Somalia as part of a project led by Prof. Michael Ngadi and post-doctoral research associate Ebenezer Kwofie of McGill University.

The project is supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), an agency of the United Nations. The goal is to gather data that can be used to inform policymakers trying to solve global food insecurity challenges.

“When it comes to making good social and economic policies, I strongly believe we live in a data-deficient world – even in Canada,” said Joel Sotomayor, JRS VirtualStudio’s founder. “We have all kinds of tools available to help us make data-informed decisions in areas like food policy, but in many cases we’re either not doing it all or the data that’s being collected isn’t being shared properly. That leads to bad policies.”

Many experts believe harnessing the power of data is key to solving the challenges facing the global food system.

“The biggest challenge facing the world is how do we provide enough nutritious, inexpensive, sustainably-produced food to feed a rapidly growing global population, while the effects of climate change and other socioeconomic factors are putting more and more pressure on our agricultural systems?” said Ngadi, a member of McGill’s Margaret A. Gilliam Institute for Global Food Security and a leading expert in food engineering and how processing affects food quality, nutrition and safety.

“But before we can even begin to address the big picture issues of how to feed the world of tomorrow, we need to answer basic questions like: what are people actually eating today? Innovations like the iNutri app will help us find the answers and equip policymakers with the information they need to develop effective approaches to the multifaceted challenges of food security.”

iNutri is powered by a machine vision algorithm that recognizes food items and calculates their nutritional score using an index developed by Ngadi’s team at McGill. Starting in October, members of the research team and trained volunteers will take thousands of pictures of 100 staple foods and unique dishes in each of the study areas. Each dish will be given a nutritional score that will provide a window into the day-to-day lives of people in regions where access to nutritious food cannot be taken for granted.

The iNutri app is designed to work offline to be useful in regions where most people can’t afford or don’t have access to a cellular data plan. Data collected will be stored on the mobile devices until an internet connection is available for upload to a server or blockchain network such as the mPowered ecosystem.

“Food security is an issue everywhere, even in wealthy countries like Canada,” said Sotomayor, whose team of developers has taken countless pictures of food items, from avocadoes to zucchini, to train the algorithm to recognize food items with near-perfect accuracy.

Innovation will also play a critical role in the $10-million, federally-funded Smart Cities initiative announced in June to create a circular food economy in the City of Guelph and Wellington County. New technologies like the iNutri app may help increase access to nutritious food by identifying and measuring elements of the food system, including where food is needed and how so much of it ends up going to waste.

“Working on the iNutri project has been very rewarding and we’re looking forward to implementing this innovative technology to help solve important real-world problems,” said Sotomayor.

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