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New App Shows Health Inspection Records for Nearby Restaurants

As a trained chef, Matthew Eierman doesn’t have a lot of forgiveness for health inspection violations at restaurants. As a diner, he’d prefer to avoid establishments with poor health records.

“When I go to a restaurant, I’m worried about problems that cause illness,” Eierman said. “Cross-contamination, proper holding temperatures — things like that.”

But for diners who want to know how an establishment performs on health inspections, accessing that information often involves visiting their local health district’s website and potentially navigating archaic or confusing records systems — if the records are available at all.

Eierman hopes to make it easier for consumers to access that restaurant inspection information. Three weeks ago, he and his colleagues released HDScores, an iPhone app that shows health inspection scores for restaurants and other food establishments on a map.

Eierman likens it to Zillow or Yelp, but specifically for restaurant health inspections. The app displays a map of the user’s area and shows a percentage score for each establishment, based on HDScores’ own scoring algorithm.

The algorithm places an emphasis on cleanliness and factors related to foodborne illness, focusing less on issues unrelated to contamination. As a result, Eierman said it’s possible for an establishment to score an A on their health inspection but receive a lower score on HDScores, like 75 percent, if they have only a few violations but those violations are directly related to foodborne illness risk.

“The most common violations we see are temperature control problems and failure to wash hands,” Eierman told Food Safety News.

The information on the app is kept up-to-date, too. Users will typically be able to see any new inspection scores within 12-24 hours of the health department’s filing.

So far, the app covers about 500,000 of the 1.5 million establishments nationwide that are subject to health inspections. It includes entire states, such as New York, Pennsylvania and Kansas, as well as major cities such as San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle.

The team plans to add another big chunk of coverage in an upcoming update to reach 45-50 percent of food establishments in the country, covering 60-65 percent of places where the U.S. population resides.

But once they reach that point, progress is expected to slow. One-third of health jurisdictions in the U.S. still operate on paper-only records systems. Scanning and digitizing those data would be a big cost hurdle.

“For example, I’m in Maryland and it’s a data desert here,” Eierman said.

He added that it helps to have multiple companies — including Yelp — working to get more accessible data to consumers. He hopes that soon enough the demand for data will drive the remaining health jurisdictions to digitize their records or make them more easily available.

For now, the team is focused on releasing an Android version of the app and a web browser service.

Below is a map of all the areas currently covered by HDScores:

© Food Safety News
  • Terri R. Waller, MPA

    Mr. Andrews,

    Thank you for posting this article. I understand the direction of the app. However, my concern is in the following line of the article that talks about the algorithm used in the app “As a result,
    Eierman said it’s possible for an establishment to score an A on their health inspection but receive a lower score on HDScores, like 75 percent, if they have only a few violations but those violations are directly related to foodborne illness risk.” I wish the scores would simply be presented “on its face” without any “skewing” (I am interpreting it as skewing). Present the scores from the
    health department “as is” and let the customers make the decision upon their review. The biggest concern I have with the skewing from both sides is….for the business owner what type of impact will the skewing have on their business and for the company that developed the app what type of
    legal ramification if any will come from it.

    • Rebecca

      Terri,

      Interesting thoughts that HDScores should be careful to consider. As long as they make it very clear that they are using their own scoring system and not just reproducing the DOH scores there should not be any problems – in this way it would be the same as any other third party publishing their own reviews of an establishment.

      I’m not sure if this is already the case as I have an Android phone, but as a potential app-user, I would prefer to have the Health Inspection score as well as their HDScore readily available. But I do appreciate the weight HDScores puts on potential contamination – having worked in the food service industry myself it does seem like establishments can sometimes skate by with an A even with potentially dangerous violations, and I would like to be able to see those easily. I do think that transparency of this algorithm, both to users and to businesses, is important though, and it doesn’t appear that HDScores goes very far into the exact workings anywhere. If this app were to become popular enough that this “skewing” would have a negative effect on businesses with good health inspections but more cleanliness violations, then the business should put more focus on cleanliness as a response. However, the app feeling “fair” to these businesses relies on it making clear exactly which violations are weighing down their scores.

      • HDScores

        Terri,

        We represent the data exactly as we receive it from the health departments from the data of the inspections, the line item violations, to the misspelling of the town names because they are manually entered incorrectly. This is all publicly available data put into an easy to read, search and understand format (or that is the goal). This is still a public beta. This was just launched but think we can take 886 localities and make it perfect at the time of launch is un-realistic. Our “skew” starts with the same exact data as everyone else. We scores on multiple factors. Not just the current inspection. See the post above for that.

        Terri you can start 2 cooks off with the same ingredient and tell them to make the same dish and get 2 different results… that is nothing new. Or be like we hate google search because always used altavista search. The scoring and ranking data/documents/pages on the web is not new and we took a year to study and understand what we were working with before we took a year to build it… Studies in NYC, LA, and London all state transparency in an understandable format increase consumer confidence, economic development and decrease medical and economic related cost from food borne illness.

        The difference of a 4 to 5 star review on a review site does have economic impact. So does a clean establishment. If this were yelp and this were user reviews there could be a skew specifically if its anonymous reviews. This is all public data that exists for your viewing pleasure, if you could find our understand it. We treat every establishment the same in regards to the public data aggregated.

        As for legal ramifications an establishment would have to prove to manipulated data with intent. That is not our goal.

        Rebecca,

        Android app will be launching within 30 days. Web app in the next 45 days…
        We mark if a violation was a repeat, critical or was corrected on site to help users understand this.

        In the 2nd quarter of next year will release an our API to the public for non-commercial and academic use for free. For Transparency sake, we are also in the process of having better documentation around our scoring and api.

        I’m a chef, a Johnson & Wales University Alumni, and spent almost a decade within the food service industry. I know and love this industry, but understand it from both the business and data sides. We aim to be fair, but we will be transparent.

  • Melissa

    Wish this included New Jersey…

    • HDScores

      South jersey is easier then north jersey as the inspections are done by the municipalities towns, not a county or state government and each has not made this data available or we would have included it.

  • J

    I DLed this app and have been checking it out. I think it has a lot of promise. As to Terri’s concern, the HDScores appear to be more of a ranking than an actual score. Therefore, if an establishment scored a 95% from DEHS, and that puts you in the 75th percentile of the scores given by that jurisdiction, HDS would score you a 75%. If that is really how it works, it seems like a fair enough system. Additionally, clicking on an establishment enables you to see DEHS’ score and the type of violations noted. In looking a little deeper, my concern lies more in the fact that scores seem to not be updated frequently. I spot checked a number of establishments against DEHS websites and found that the most recent DEHS inspection was not shown on the HDS app. A typical example had the APP showing a most recent inspection of 9/13 when in fact the most recent inspection was 5/14. With the information from 5/14 still not being updated to the app, it seems like the app is providing badly outdated information, which could certainly misrepresent the most recently assessed condition of the establishment.

    • HDScores

      The system is still a public beta, we are updating the jurisdictions data as fast as our bootstrapped technology will allow us. Across all the jurisdictions. Still room for improvement.

      As for scoring we look at historical violations, current violations, critical or foundation, repeat violations and corrected on side. Along with the type of violation, and the likely hood of spreading food borne illness. That our standards group came up with. So sanitation, hospitality, data science and chefs got together as the scoring was being built.

      We on the first page and map we show our score, but when you click on the inspection dates you can see the health departments data and there score they are clearly defined and seperated. Along with the violations, codes and links to original data.

  • HDScores

    Jamie, we only work with data that is publicly available or open in a jurisdiction. Government only needs to release data consistently in a consistent format. We do all the rest of the work.

    We could only do so much before launch our data access is greater then what is in the app now. See our data access page for more info. http://HDScores.com/data-access

  • J T

    ULTRA LAME that this is only on iPhone, considering Android has already overtaken them in market share. As of September this year, Android had 51.5% of the market share in the US, compared to 42.5% for Apple. Good job completely disregarding more than half of the US smartphone population, Eierman!

    • HDScores

      JT we started with iOS because that is the way our demographics and user surveyed. We also will have a Android version out within a month. 45 days for a web version. It is not at we completed disregarded half of smartphone users its call a launch strategy.

    • Ned Ryerson

      Buy an iPhone if you need the app that bad genius.

  • Ford

    One competitor out there to check out is Diner’s Guide. They charge for app but they seem to be updating pretty fast on HD scores in many of same locations.

  • Sansher

    The other thing, you are putting blind faith on the quality of the inspector. having worked 20 years among them I’ve seen some pretty pathetic inspectors and the systems that spawn them. I personally don’t have that much faith in any but the few Health Departments that are at the top (Minnesota). Those Health Departments at the bottom of the pay scale (Florida is dead last for compensation) well bottom wages attract the bottom. If you want just scary, go to SW Central Michigan…

    Look at the bathrooms, they look like whats in the back, a high correlation.

    • HDScores

      Sansher, we have to accept the data from the government as is. You would be suprised the trends you can spot when you see when we aggregate all the data.

    • FoodLover

      Actually, that’s not exactly true. Where I live some of the high-end places with nice looking bathrooms and dining areas have the most critical violations while some of the older places with dirtier-looking restrooms do better in the back of the house. For example, in our area, there was a restaurant with 21 violations, but the bathrooms and dining areas looked great.
      And yes, while inspections rely heavily on training and may be subjective, there are other components that affect the quality of inspections. For one, some jurisdictions do not have as much authority to close places or force compliance. Other areas also have political pressures that side with business more than public health. An energetic inspector can be forced to change their approach.

  • ehchief

    Kern County Environmental Health created an app. for both Android and iPhones that shows not only the food establishment grade but also the inspection reports. Check it out! It is called Safe Diner.

  • Kristy

    Has the android version been released yet? Where do I find it? I was unable to locate it in the play store under What the health as it was called on my local news coverage of your app.

  • Morescratch

    What is the business model? Being in Canada I don’t see what the utility is…