Commentary

Yelp Helps NY Officials Find Dirty Restaurants

Several years ago, Google began mining search data for health purposes when it began examining people's searches for flu-related keywords. The company then used that information to create its flu-trends feature, which reports on the cities that appear to be experiencing flu outbreaks.

Now another Web company, Yelp, also is offering up data in order for a health-related purpose -- helping New York City figure out where to send its health inspectors.

A report released on Thursday by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention outlines how New York officials worked with Yelp to discover the names of restaurants associated with food poisoning. “Online reviews might help to identify unreported outbreaks of foodborne illness and restaurants with deficiencies in food handling,” the report states.

The report says the city turned to Yelp after realizing that some restaurant patrons who come down with food poisoning are more likely to turn to Yelp than call “311” to file an official report.

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For the initiative, New York officials and Yelp examined nearly 300,000 restaurant reviews posted between July 1, 2012 and March 31, 2013, searching for words associated with food poisoning. Researchers determined that around 500 reviews included words associated with food poisoning, but less than 3% of the reviewers had made reports to the city.

New York employees followed up with 27 phone interviews, which led investigators to conclude that there were three previously unreported restaurant-related outbreaks. City inspectors then visited two of those restaurants and discovered “multiple violations,” according to the CDC. (The city had already inspected the third restaurant.)

The report recommends that other health officials draw on data in review sites. “By incorporating website review data into public health surveillance programs, health departments might find additional illnesses and improve detection of foodborne disease outbreaks in the community,” the report states.

Yelp itself will now begin providing daily review feeds to New York's health department, the report states.

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