Our project on the price of food starts with an interactive experience in which Internet users can navigate through a virtual grocery store. We translated the prices paid at the checkout for 45 products into an amount of minutes worked, based on the evolution of the average hourly wage of Canadians. At the end, they can see if their basket costs them more or less than before. They can then remove or add items to see the impact of their choices. Our file also comes with eight additional texts on issues related to food and finances.
At the start of 2022, « foodflation » was already on everyone’s lips. However, the price at the grocery store checkout is only one part of the complexity of the cost of our food. But do we really pay more for our food today? This is the question we wanted to answer. Different factors come into play with prices, from seasonality to the weather, even transportation, money currency and markets. Another element to consider over time is inflation and the cost of living. Yes, prices are increasing. But wages are also rising, and people sometimes forget about that. This is why we translated the prices paid at the checkout into an amount of minutes worked, based on the evolution of the average hourly wage of Canadians, and why we invited Internet users to navigate through a virtual grocery store, where they could see which products really cost more than before in labor time, and which actually cost less. Our virtual clerks are there to clarify what factors affect prices and put periods of fluctuation into context. We even give the option to users of removing or adding items to their basket to see the impact of their choices, since the consumption profile also has an impact on the evolution of the cost of the grocery cart. Our file also comes with eight additional texts on issues related to food and finances because we really wanted to make a series which would leave no questions unanswered.
The prices of the products in our virtual grocery store are taken from a Statistics Canada food database. These are monthly data representative of the whole country. We also used another database from the federal agency on average salaries. However, to simplify the interpretation of the data, we have created an index from these two datasets, which translates the cost of food into a number of minutes worked and which then makes it possible to simply show if a product costs more or is cheaper than before and to quantify the percentage of change. We used our custom API to scrape all the data needed and also to return it to the web page. All the elements of the project, taking the form of a virtual grocery store, were developed using a variety of technologies, including Node.js, React.js, GraphQL, D3 and Material UI. Our interactive project is designed to be as easy to use on a computer as on all mobile devices. It takes up both mechanics associated with online shopping and browsing on social networks. Everything has been imagined, designed and illustrated by our own team with Adobe Photoshop, to offer an inviting, colorful and instructive environment. We have also created a series of posts on Instagram to provide a different experience for Internet users.
Context about the project:
Finding food price data was a more complex task than it seems. There is only one historical and publicly accessible database : the one from Statistics Canada. Other companies doing similar collection of data offer them at cost and only go back a few years. We therefore opted for the one from the federal agency, even if it was the subject of criticism. A limited number of products are listed and only a few details are known about the methodology. The same price collection is also used to measure the consumer price index on food purchased from stores, which would underestimate the real price increases, according to an article in the Toronto Star published shortly before our project. Even Statistics Canada cautions against using its average price data on a historical perspective. In the weeks following the publication of our project, the federal agency ended the monthly updates of its database on average food prices and archived it. It has been replaced by a new database, with a different methodology and a revised list of products. The new data is only available from 2017 and is not compatible with historical data from the other dataset. Several experts we consulted believe that our project has highlighted the difficulties of accessing reliable and historical data on the price of food in order to follow its evolution over the years.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
The goal of our project was to deal with a subject widely covered in an original way. All topics, simple or complex, can be made into an interactive experience increasing the engagement of Internet users. Through a virtual grocery store, which incorporates the codes of online shopping and social networks, they can learn while having fun. Our project not only presents them with historical information on the evolution of food prices and wages, but also on the reasons behind the price fluctuations of several products. Internet users can even draw their own conclusions by modifying the content of their cart, making it a customizable experience. It is a fun and rewarding way to visualize data, but also to allow less familiar Internet users to navigate into a complex database. To avoid weighing even more the main project, we made an entire file on the grocery basket theme, publishing one article per day, in order to explore all the aspects of this complex, but close to people, subject.