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Better Than a Crystal Ball? Health Inspectors Finding Filthy Restaurants Using Analytics

City officials say it's a way to reduce the safety risk to the public.

Wearing gloves to ensure food safety.
Wearing gloves to ensure food safety.
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

Maybe it's like the culinary version of "1984" for Chicago restaurants. City officials are being lauded for using stats to predict which restaurants to send health inspectors to in a quest to improve efficiency and make the most of their time in the field. This data from Chicago's restaurants helps figure out which places may have the most serious health code violations and need inspections the most, reports Route Fifty.

The city says their analytics (available here) can help find filthy restaurants faster, reducing safety risk to the public by forcing owners to make changes or temporarily shutting down restaurants before they can serve tainted food.

Coders spent about a year building the statistical program for Chicago's public health department. They've combined various data points, including sanitation complaints lodged by folks calling the city's 311 telephone number, permit info and inspection reports to create a model with a goal of predicting which restaurants (or grocery stores) are most likely to have critical violations in the near future. These critical violations are described as ones with the greatest chance of making a customer sick. Here's a rundown of some of things in the data:

  • Three-day average food temperature
  • Other sanitation/garbage complaints lodged nearby
  • Possession of a tobacco or alcohol license
  • Time since last inspection and how long the restaurant's been operating
  • Restaurants with past violations

There's also data via social media. Back in 2013, the city launched Foodborne, which allows online submissions of potential food poisoning. It also searches Twitter for any restaurant complaints worth investigating.

Route Fifty characterizes Chicago as a trailblazer, writing that other cities should develop similar programs. Should these efforts make Chicago diners feel more safer? Is this a positive for restaurant owners, some of which have complaints communication during the inspection process? Sound of in the comments.