Director UAB Institute of Law and Technology
Mediation seems most appropriate for consumer redress as consumers tend to avoid courts when facing problems with a product or a service. Geoconsum is a mobile application providing accurate, precise and geolocated information on who is in best position to help them to solve their case.
In 2010, the European Consumers Centres Network (ECC-Net) handled nearly 45,000 complaints all over Europe. Yet, understandably enough, consumers tend to avoid courts when facing problems with a product or a service, for the costs of a judicial procedure typically exceed the value of the case. Mediation, instead, seems most appropriate for consumer redress. In Catalonia, a number of public and private entities provide mediation services for the consumer domain, but surveys also reveal that citizens have little knowledge of these entities and of the mediation schemes they offer.
To fill this gap, we have created Geoconsum, a mobile application that empowers consumers by providing accurate, precise and geolocated information on who is in best position to help them to solve their case. Geocosum is extremely simple and user friendly: a basic search form triggers results on: i) the nearest consumer information or mediation service available and ii) consumer legislation relevant to the specific case. When clicking on the result, the application displays a route planner to the nearest consumer entity, provides the contact details (email address, telephone number, etc.) and enables to write an email, make a phone call or access the website. As regards legislation, Geoconsum implements a search by queries (in text or by audio). Moreover, the application has advanced search functionalities, so that a consumer may search by European, national or sub-national legislation, and by binding or non-binding nature of the regulation. In this way, Geoconsum is easily escalable to other EU countries.
1. Can you briefly describe the innovation, in terms of the problem(s) it tries to solve and why is it necessary?
Consumer awareness of bodies and methods of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) such as mediation or arbitration is very limited. In Europe, only 3% of consumers whose complaint with the seller or provider was resolved unsatisfactorily bring the matter to an arbitration, mediation or conciliation body. Moreover, in Spain more than 50% of consumers do not know any public or private body of consumer protection. In this regard, the European institutions have several policies on consumer empowerment. This involves the provision of clear information policies to consumers so that they know their rights and may seek redress when necessary.
Geoconsum is a mobile application that consumers may download into their smartphones. Once installed, consumers may access a database on consumer information and mediation bodies. This database provides information of different bodies (both public and private) that may solve their questions. Moreover, consumers may also access a compendium of consumer legislation which is applicable in Catalonia and which may be relevant in that case. The information retrieval device includes both a parameterized and a geolocation search.
Therefore, Geoconsum is necessary because it may bring consumers closer to consumer mediation and information entities in Catalonia. Consumers that experience a problem with a product or a service will have immediate contact to consumer entities; by email, telephone, postal address etc. Moreover, the application provides a route planner to the nearest consumer entity, so the consumer may easily head himself to that entity in order to seek advice or present a claim. Furthermore, consumers will have immediate access to a compendium of consumer legislation and to full text retrieval of consumer legal texts applicable in Catalonia.
The use of mobile technologies is of paramount importance because consumers do not have to wait to be at work or at home in order to consult a legislation disposition or a consumer body; they may consult its databases on-the-go, exactly at the moment they need it. Moreover, they may take benefit of some of the mobile capabilities such as geolocation, use of telephone and email capabilities, etc.
2. What makes your innovation unique?
At the moment there is no service like this in Catalonia or in Spain. The Consumer Catalan Agency is the institutional body entitled to protect consumers in Catalonia, and their website provides information on consumer issues. However, they do not have a mobile application providing consumer information. Other local institutional bodies of consumer protection or consumer associations in Catalonia do also have sources of information on consumer topics. However, none of these institutions uses mobile devices or geolocation tools.
3. What triggered the development of the innovation?
The research undertaken in the consumer chapter of the White Book on Mediation in Catalonia showed some specific problems of the consumer domain. Consumers have a lack of information of those entities of consumer protection and of the mediation schemes they offer. When a problem arises consumers usually do not know what entity could address to in order to seek for advice. Moreover, consumers do not access courts when they have a problem since courts are expensive and complex. ADR means remain as sources of consumer redress. However, the knowledge of the methods of ADR that consumers have is very limited and the lack of awareness is a limit to the full benefit of ADR. In addition, consumers are usually not well informed on consumer Law. These aspects triggered the development of an application that could contribute, modestly enough, to empower consumers; that is to bring consumers closer to consumer entities and closer to relational justice.
4. Which persons and organisations were involved in the development and what role did they play?
Geoconsum has been created and entirely developed at the UAB Institute of Law and Technology. The application takes stock of previous research projects dealing with mediation and ODR (notably the White Book on Mediation in Catalonia (2009-2010), Ontomedia: Ontologies and Web Services Platform for Online Mediation (TSI-020501-2008-131, 2008-2010) and Ontomedia: Semantic Web, Ontologies, and ODR, (CSO2008-005536/SOCI, 2008-2010).
Key persons directly involved in the project are current IDT director Dr Marta Poblet (IP of the project), legal researcher and Ph D. candidate Josep Suquet, and software developers Rubén Serrano and Joan Fuentes. In addition, the project involved a group of undergraduate students from the UAB law school who helped to collect information on different consumer entities in Catalonia and Spain.
5. What kind of resistance have you encountered and how have you overcome it?
A questionnaire on the mobile application and the databases was created and it was sent to the Consumer Catalan Agency, to local offices of consumer information and to consumer associations. Their responses have been very fruitful and they may contribute to improve the application with further updates. We have found no resistance from those bodies but on the contrary they have been very supportive and encouraging.
6. How did you make the goals realistic and attainable, and when will quick wins be available?
This application is already usable. Consumers may install this application from the Google Play Store. As well it is downloadable here. The mobile application contains dynamic information such as contact details or legislation that may be subject to changes; one of the challenges is having the application continuously up-to-date.
7. Will the innovation affect other organizations in the chain and if that is the case, how will it affect them?
It is believed that Geoconsum may encourage other consumer protecting bodies, both from the public and the private sphere into developing mobile technologies for consumer information. In particular, geolocation is ranked by consumer experts as one of the most interesting tools of the application. According to this device, the application shows a list of the nearest consumer entities and routes the consumer to the entity chosen.
Moreover, the application’s source code is to be published on Open Source. Therefore, other informatics engineers may benefit from this application. In fact, as it is known, the Open Source community attracts very bright and motivated developers. It is hoped that this application will contribute to improve mobile technologies in the area of consumer Law.
8. How was the development funded and what were reasons for the financing organisation?
The researchers involved in the design and development of the application were also involved in the three research projects mentioned in section 4, so Geoconsum could be developed in parallel and directly benefited from their outcomes and the synergies between them. No other external funds or private investors were involved.
9. Can you name 3 to 5 characteristics of the innovation that are most essential to make it work?
- Consumer empowerment. The application may contribute to empower consumers by offering a tool that provides transparent, efficient and up-to-date information to consumers seeking for advice and mediation.
- Accessibility. The application offers immediate contact of consumer mediation entities; consumers may easily contact them by any communication means. Thanks to geolocation, consumers may be routed to the nearest consumer mediation entity.
- Access to justice. Geoconsum may improve consumers’ access to justice. The application brings consumer mediation entities closer to consumers and therefore, consumes may have an easy and speedy option to seek for redress.
10. How do you measure whether it is a successful innovation?
The innovation successfulness may be measured according to the usability of the application by consumers. The opinion of consumer experts is also of importance.
11. How many people or organisations benefit from this innovation now?
7,5 million consumers in Catalonia may take benefit from this innovation. Moreover, this service may be further scalable to other European countries. In fact, a European research project was applied for in order to extend the application and the databases to Spain and Portugal.
12. How many people or organisations could potentially benefit your innovation now and in the future? Can or will the innovation be used internationally and how do you overcome cultural differences?
It is hoped that more consumers will be aware of this application and consequently they will use it.
Since the source code is to be published Open Source we believe that many institutions could potentially benefit from our innovation now or in the future.
13. Can you quantify the financial benefits?
Since this is an information application, it is difficult to quantify the financial benefits. In any case, those benefits will be related to time efficiency, time saving.
14. Is the innovation financially viable and sustainable and if yes, how?
The innovation is financially viable although it is interesting to note that a continuous effort to keep the databases up-to-date is needed (update of legislation acts, changes of addresses etc).
15. Did you receive any recognition?
We have not received any official recognition yet, but we have had full support and encouragement from the consumer domain experts involved in the research projects we have been carrying out. Likewise, the Catalan Agency of Consume has expressed its interest in how they could best leverage the application when providing its services.
16. What lessons did you learn along the way that could be useful to others?
We have learned that the best technologies to improve citizens’ access to consumers’ redress and mediation services are the ones they are already using: mobile applications. Mobile applications have a great potential since they are pervasive, inexpensive and user friendly (the learning curve is relatively low as compared with other technologies). Developing legal services via smart phones and mobile apps could make a significant contribution to the effective empowerment of citizens and the rule of law.