Alan Abrahams, associate professor in the Department of Business Information Technology within Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business, was recently invited to Brussels to participate in an International Product Safety Week panel discussion.

International Product Safety Week is a biennial event, organized by the European Commission, that brings together government regulators, industry personnel, consumer organizations, academics, and other stakeholders from around the world.

Participating in the panel, “New technologies as allies for product safety,” Abrahams was joined by speakers from the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission and the OECD Working Party on Consumer Product Safety, the European Commission, and French cloud-based e-commerce software company Mirakl. The panel presented a range of cutting-edge tools designed to enhance consumer product safety by detecting dangerous products online, identifying emerging product safety issues, and improving product traceability.

“Alan has dedicated most of his career doing impactful research on product safety,” said Quinton Nottingham, department head for the Department of Business Information Technology. “His participation on the panel in Brussels highlights Alan’s position as one of the top international leaders investigating product safety concerns. His participation also brings massive exposure to his work, the business information technology department, the Pamplin College of Business, and Virginia Tech.”

“My primary research is focused on how to discover product safety concerns from online consumer postings, predominantly online reviews and product reviews, but also online discussion forums,” said Abrahams, who also serves as associate director of the Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Executive Ph.D. program.

While much of the discourse surrounding emerging technologies has been about potential threats to consumer safety and privacy that said technologies can generate, Abrahams has taken a different approach, focusing his analysis on the ways emerging technologies can make the consumer safer.

“On our panel, there was a discussion about how new technologies can help with improving consumer product safety,” Abrahams said. “We discussed things like innovative technology that could potentially identify products that are nonconformant with standards. Such as cribs that have drop sides or gaps between railings. Technology that could spot issues like inclined sleepers in the nursery, which presents hazards for kids, or corded window coverings that could present strangulation hazards for kids.”

He continued, “I think everyone's very excited by new technology, but cautious about it as well. There is always excitement about the introduction of a new product, but how does a business proceed with market expansion while at the same time being concerned about the risks that new products entail?”

Over a decade ago, Abrahams began his consumer safety work by examining specific vehicle mentions in online automotive forums, in collaborative work with fellow business information technology faculty G. Alan Wang, then-Virginia Tech Professor Patrick Fan, and Ph.D. student Jian Jiao. From there, Abrahams and his team began to develop software to help gather and arrange the mountains of data collected.

One of these products, PamTag, is a collaborative, large-scale tagging system developed in-house by a Pamplin Ph.D. student, Rich Gruss. The system is operated by student volunteers as well as collaborators from outside institutions, such as Thammasat University, Bangkok, Thailand.

“We've also developed desktop software and web-hosted software for generating what we call smoke term lists,” said Abrahams. “Smoke term lists are key terms that are statistically more prevalent in safety concerns than in other postings, so they are red flags for safety concerns. We developed a desktop product – PamTAT – that is an add-in for Microsoft Excel to help with the process of flagging the smoke terms. Our former Ph.D. student David Goldberg has also produced an open-source and free-to-use web-hosted tool – – that allows corporations, regulators, and researchers to generate smoke term lists and use what they've generated to score new consumer postings to assess how likely it is that they mention safety concerns.”

Gathering and collating copious amounts of information is just one impediment that Abrahams's research confronts. Another is getting the information in front of those – regulators, manufacturers, and retailers – who can make the necessary changes.

“We have tried over the years to share our findings with national regulators, beginning with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is the primary consumer regulatory agency in the United States,” Abrahams said. “We've also shared data with Health Canada, which is the equivalent Canadian organization. Last year we were invited by the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission and the OECD Working Party on Consumer Product Safety to discuss our research with them, which is what led to our invite to Brussels.”

Abrahams believes that participating in events such as International Product Safety Week will help circumvent some of the bureaucratic obstacles he routinely confronts.

“The European Union-sponsored International Product Safety Week is very heavily attended by regulators from across the globe,” he said. “Everyone from representatives of the Consumer Product Safety Commission to the regulator from Malta was present. It was a great knowledge-sharing event. There were hundreds of representatives from dozens of countries in attendance.”

Regulatory agencies face numerous obstacles in collaborating with academia.

“Generally, project safety is typically very underfunded, particularly for research-based inquiry at the national level,” Abrahams said. “Regulation, particularly in the United States, constrains federal agencies investigating safety concerns from disclosing the content of their investigations. That makes collaborating with external parties extremely difficult because there's a certain amount of corporate protection embedded in our legislation that impedes collaboration on safety investigations.”

Abrahams is hopeful that as his research gains traction, investigations will become more open and expansive and focus on information sharing.

“I think we will continue to explore different products, particularly those aimed at vulnerable communities, and continue identifying smoke terms,” Abrahams said. “I also hope that we will continue with our software expansion in terms of new software products that we can develop and make available to the community at large. We have also discussed opportunities with various potential collaborators, such as the Queensland University of Technology. We hope to continue to expand collaborations with other institutions and to hopefully make some progress in that regard.” 

He continued, “We are also excited about industry-leading education initiatives like our new partnership with the Society of Product Safety Professionals, and ADK Information Services, to jointly host the Consumer Product Safety Professional Certification Program, at our Virginia Tech Arlington Executive Briefing Center, beginning in March 2023.”

Abrahams affirmed that the funding and personnel support he has received from Virginia Tech has made his research possible.

“We have received generous internal funding since 2021 from the Virginia Tech Institute for Society, Culture, and the Environment and the Data and Decision Sciences destination area for our product safety research, which has propelled our research productivity and reputation in this field,” he said.

“We have also received great leadership from Laura Sands with the Department of Human Development and Family Science, in particular co-advising our phenomenal master’s students Felipe Restrepo and Namrata Mali, who were supported by these internal grants and have published multiple product-safety related publications supported by these internal grants.”

Abrahams also said his team has received intellectual contributions from prior Business Information Technology Ph.D. students and graduate assistants David Goldberg, Rich Gruss, Nohel Zaman, Leila Nasri, and Milad Bhagersad.

Written by Jeremy Norman