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San Francisco Pilots Restaurant Inspections in Yelp Reviews

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, January 17 2013

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee is expected to announce today that his city's restaurant inspection data will begin to appear on Yelp, the business listings service.

Also included in the announcement, expected at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C., is that Yelp, in conjunction with city technologists in San Francisco and New York, NY, have created what they hope will become a de-facto standard for restaurant inspection data. Called Local Inspector Value-Entry Specification, or LIVES, the hope is that this specification will make restaurant inspection information easy for developers to handle and, as a result, more ubiquitous on the web.

Thumb through clippings about the most widely used data coming from government and you'll see that the most successful applications built on public data are related to transit. In part, that's because in Oregon, Portland's TriMet transportation authority and Google created the Google Transit Feed Specification, a set of rules outlining how developers at transit authorities should present information about transit routes and schedules. This worked well enough that Google could start pulling in data with enough confidence in its integrity to present it in search results and Google Maps. At the same time, because the data was open for anyone to use, developers elsewhere — like those at OpenPlans, who worked with TriMet — could also build applications on that data. Other cities began to jump on board and shared their data as well — after all, Portland and Google had done all the hard work of figuring out how to do it and showing how it worked.

San Francisco, New York — which is expected to join in this pilot in the coming weeks — and Yelp are hoping this will do for restaurant inspections what GTFS did for transit data. But data on a restaurant's sanitation is a dicier issue.

Inspection data already appears in Yelp restaurant listings in the city of San Francisco as of today, and is expected to come to New York soon, Yelp officials say. New York officials have been working on this idea with San Francisco officials and with Yelp for about a year.

In fact, techPresident senior editor David Eaves floated this idea back in 2011, while he was still with Code for America, and it gestated from there.

The result in San Francisco — and eventually New York — is that how a restaurant did on its inspections will appear in Yelp listings as well as wherever the establishment is required to post a paper copy. (In New York, unlike in San Francisco, restaurants are already required to post their score in their front window. In New York, it's a letter grade; in San Francisco, it's a numerical score, with 100 being the best possible.) The data is already made available online through city health department web portals as well as through the city's open data catalog in San Francisco as well as New York.

Restaurant inspections are controversial with some business owners. Public health officials cite a 2005 study by the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services that found posting restaurant inspections at each restaurant was related to a 13 percent decline in hospitalizations due to food-borne illness. But restaurant owners in New York will say the inspection process is unfair, catching a kitchen staff at one moment and calling it representative of the restaurant's operations all year. What's more, at least in New York, an inspection score will change after a follow-up inspection or as issues are dropped off the report after taking a turn before an administrative law judge.

San Francisco city officials said they have reached out to the local restaurant association about this initiative and will be in touch going forward. The Golden Gate Restaurant Association didn't return my call or answer an email. But Andrew Moesel, spokesman for the New York State Restaurant Association, said the announcement would be an unwelcome surprise for Gotham restaurateurs.

"We are opposed to a letter-grading system in general and believe that further dissemination of these misleading grades will be hurtful to small businesses," Moesel told me yesterday. "There's already ample disclosure of these grades at the site and online. Moreover, we've found that information online is often inaccurate and not updated in a timely fashion. Therefore, it raises serious concerns about further expanding the circle of that influence."

This might sound familiar to Yelp, which was embroiled in a kerfuffle about phony or malicious reviews after the site began to grow in popularity. On that front, Yelp Director of Public Policy Luther Lowe told me, the site has taken action — it uses algorithms to scan its reviews. When the numbers don't add up and a review looks phony, that review is removed.

But the site is in a unique position here: It's passing along government data that's already available elsewhere, so one could argue its responsibilities are not so great. On the other hand, the whole point of asking Yelp to publish this data is to bring restaurant inspections an audience they do not already have, perhaps putting the onus on Yelp to figure out how to present them in a responsible way. There's also some shifting sand here, because there is a delay between when a New York inspection score is changed and when that change is reflected online.

Some small businesses put such stock in Yelp reviews that they will reach out to people who leave them a bad review in the hopes of winning back that customer — and her readers. What happens if a bad inspection grade — especially one that is turned around on reinspection — turns people off before they even arrive at the restaurant? It might motivate restaurant owners to keep a cleaner establishment, as San Francisco Department of Health Executive Director Barbara Garcia suggested yesterday on a call with reporters. But it might also punish restaurants owners caught on an off day or by a less-than-stellar inspector, as Moesel suggested to me.

Scores have always done either or both of those things. The expectation is that by bringing them onto other platforms, like Yelp, those effects will be amplified. But this being the first time this has been tried, no one really knows yet what's going to happen.

Lowe says Yelp is open to figuring this out as the whole experiment goes along.

"We're not creating new information, we're just taking information that already exists that doesn't get that much exposure and putting it in a place that seems to make sense when [people are] making dining decisions," Lowe said. "And if people aren't crazy about it, that's where democracy kicks in."

That is, if the data isn't useful to people, they should be calling on their city to provide better data. In San Francisco, Yelp will find out soon whether restaurant inspection scores are a hot item for users.

The idea headed into this experiment was that a new audience for data on restaurant inspections would motivate more restaurant owners to clean up their act. But it might compel another type of person to square away their ship — officials at city departments of health, who suddenly find themselves playing to a much larger audience.

This post has been updated.