Friday, May 29, 2015

Restaurant Health Inspections & Civic Hacking

Health inspection results for restaurants are publicly-available information. Or, if they're not, they should be...

Being able to easily find out what the public health inspection results have been for restaurants is of high interest to some people. Especially if it's the first time someone is going to eat at a restaurant. Or if they hear bad things through the grapevine about a particular restaurant. The problem is, most public health inspection departments don't appear to make that information available in a user-friendly way. So it seems to me that public health inspections is an ideal field for civic hacking.

Even though health inspection reports are or should be public data, that information may be difficult for Jolene or Joe Public to easily and quickly find for the restaurants they're interested in. That might be because the public health department which does the inspections is still using information systems that were designed and built 30 or 40 years ago, before the Internet made it easy to access public data. Or it may be because negative health inspection results is sensitive data that public officials or the restaurants don't want shared too freely. Or the information may be difficult to get in 2015 for other reasons.

Below are three articles which comment on civic hacking of health inspection results. If you're a citizen of northeast Wisconsin who wants to be able to easily find out the health inspection results for a restaurant you're considering eating at, read these articles and consider participating in the "DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015" on June 6, 2015, to work on the issue of health inspection reports.

In "Did That Restaurant Pass Its Health Inspection?," NPR talks about health inspection reports in a few cities being incorporated with Yelp reviews for restaurants.
"Log onto Yelp, and you'll find what all your neighbors have to say about your favorite restaurant. You'll find prices, locations, menus, photos, even parking tips. And if you're in the right city, you'll also find the restaurant's health inspection score. "What we're trying to do ... is reduce foodborne illness [by] warning consumers when they're in the middle of making a decision," Luther Lowe, Yelp's director of public policy, tells The Salt. Now, we should note, it can be a bit tricky to spot those health inspection scores on Yelp. If you're looking at the Yelp website, the information is listed in a box alongside the venue's hours, menu and price range. On the smartphone app, you have to click the "More Info" button. But at least it's easier than reading through the reviews for tales of food poisoning or cockroach infestations, or tracking down the scores on a government website. "We're obviously getting way more exposure to consumers than whatever clunky 'dot gov' that the city has set up," says Lowe."
In the GeekWire article "Here’s your guide to the nastiest restaurants in Seattle," a site called Dinegerous is profiled. The site's name could be a portmanteau of 'dine' and 'dangerouse,' it could be a phonetic misspelling of the British pronunciation of 'dangerous', or it could just sound weird if you pronounce each syllable --- Di-neg-er-ous.
"Navigating Seattle’s burgeoning restaurant scene can be a serious challenge, and, if you’re unlucky, a health hazard too. (I bet I’m not the only one whose had my stomach turn after eating a bowl of clam chowder). But a Seattle geek has figured out an easy way to inform the masses about which dining establishments you’re better off avoiding, putting together a Google Map showcasing which restaurants in the city have accumulated the worst health inspection scores. The site is called Dinegerous, and it is the brainchild of Gist employee and frequent restaurant-goer Stephen Becker. He came up with the idea after a recent lunch outing with friends at Pyramid Alehouse — which actually scores pretty well. The conversation turned to health inspections, and Becker wondered if he could pull data onto a Google map to showcase those restaurants with the best and worst scores. When Becker discovered that his favorite lunch hangout scored a miserable 110 (the higher the score the more health violations), the coder decided that it was time to spread the word. “After having my coworkers test it out, we just kept talking about it,” said Becker, who only started working on the mashup about two weeks ago. He pulls the data from the King County Health Department weekly..."
For a Wisconsin article that mentions health inspection civic hacking, "Hacking for the common good" from the Isthmus (not the Wisconsin State Journal) talks about putting public health inspection data online and about a restaurant health inspection civic hack called
"I think the portal would be a lot more powerful if city employees actually used it themselves," says Erik Paulson...I asked, 'Did you use the open data portal to create these?' And the answer was, 'No, we use the same data that's in there but we use different tools.'..."I think Erik has a good point," says Sarah Edgerton...She confirms that her colleagues used geographic information system (GIS) tools, rather than the portal, to make the maps...Edgerton says the city has put more data online recently, such as restaurant and retail food store health inspection reports, which are now available through a lookup tool on the Public Health Madison & Dane County website. However, this information not being on the portal makes it cumbersome for civic hackers to incorporate into, say, a smartphone app. That's exactly what Max Stoller did in 2010, when he was a junior computer science major at New York University. His app notifies users when they've checked into a New York restaurant that the eatery has a poor health code grade or is in danger of being shut down. Stoller developed for NYC BigApps, an annual app-making competition using New York City's cornucopia of public data. won an honorable mention in the contest. "That is a great example of open data and the potential for collaboration with the developer community," says Rachel Haot, who at the time was the city's chief digital officer (CDO) and is now New York state's CDO and deputy secretary for technology."
So other cities in the US are letting their residents see the health inspection results for their cities, some in a user-friendly manner, some not so friendly. That seems to indicate that the public should also be able to see restaurant health inspection results from northeast Wisconsin in a user-friendly way if one or several civic hackers are willing to create the code to do just that. As guides to creating that code, or as potential starting points, below are links to GitHub repositories of health inspection civic hacks.

Open Health Inspection, Hampton Roads, VA
Hampton Roads has three health inspection repositories on GitHub. One for scraping the health inspection data, since it's not available in an easy-to-use open data format, one for the health inspection API, and one for the actual health inspection application to see results for different restaurants. One thing that could be made more convenient for the user of this civic hack is allowing the user to just search for a specific restaurant. Right now you have to search by zip code or GPS, and then sort through all the results that pop up to find the restaurant you're interested in.

Open Health Inspection, Chattanooga, TN
Chattanooga is building on the work done in Hampton Roads, with Chattanooga forks of the Open Health Inspection Scraper, the Open Health Inspection API, and the Open Health Inspection App.

Lex_to_LIVES, Lexington, KY
Lexington appears to have made the beginnings of a civic hack for restaurant health inspections, with their GitHub respository here. One issue with the Lexington hack is that it forces the user to download a file. Nobody wants to download a file to see the health inspection results for a restaurant. The second issue is that it appears to only have the most recent inspection. That could give a skewed impression for the restaurant. If a particular establishment has repeatedly had poor inspections, that's much different from having a single bad result. And a similar concern applies to a single good or ok result. It would be much more helpful to see at least three or four previous inspection results.

Restaurant Inspection Data, Houston, TX
The Houston situation is a slight twist on the health inspection hacks. In this case, the city of Houston seems to be the one leading the charge, rather than non-government civic hackers. In the post "Houston Hackathon Idea Series: Restaurant inspection data" by Niki Varani, the city of Houston is promoting the development of some way to more easily look up health inspection information. This city of Houston post even points at their current interface for restaurant health info and says they "think it could be a lot better." I was able to find two Houston health inspection repositories on GitHub that appears to be related to Houston civic hackathons, Food Inspection Map HTX and Zindler, for restaurant inspection reports.

If you want to work on a health inspection civic hack, read this post from Accela, "Data Standards, Restaurant Scores, SMS and 50 Lines of Code." ** warning ** The post will primarily be of interest to coders...

For those interested, click here to go to the Appleton Health Department restaurant inspections webpage. And this is the Outagamie Public Health Division webpage.

Next week I'll do another post on government-related public data that might be of high interest to citizens, but which isn't easily available to the public for one reason or another. Part of the value of a civic hackathon is to start community discussions about which government-related data is worthwhile to make easily available to the general public and to develop a plan on how to convert that information into open data that's in a user-friendly format.

If a health inspection results app is of interest to you, come to the June 6th hackathon and help build that app for northeast Wisconsin.


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