Imagine being able to travel to any city in the country — or even the world — and pull up Yelp, Urbanspoon, or a similar smartphone app and instantly access a universal health inspection scoring system for the restaurants you might want to patronize. http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photography-close-up-hands-woman-using-her-cell-phone-restaurant-cafe-female-smart-coffee-bar-sms-mail-image34959147You could immediately see which restaurants failed recent health inspections, had major violations, or even caused a foodborne illness outbreak — all in a clear, easy-to-understand scoring system rating a restaurant’s health record from zero to 100. That’s the vision of open data software company Socrata, which is launching an initiative in June to begin familiarizing local and state health departments with a standardized restaurant inspection scoring system called LIVES, or Local Inspector Value Entry Specification. Right now, health authorities around the world operate with a patchwork of disconnected scoring systems. Some use a scale of zero to five stars, while others use an ABC grading system, or red-yellow-green warnings. Many use a scale of zero to 100, with 100 being the best possible score, while some flip it around and use zero as the top score. For consumers concerned about food safety, trying to keep track of all the different scoring systems can be a daunting task. For example, how does a yellow rating in the color system compare to a C in the letter system or three out of five in the star system? Enter LIVES, which normalizes restaurant inspection scores across jurisdictions by translating various scoring systems into a universally standardized zero to 100 scale. The standardized system isn’t intended to replace the health departments’ system of choice, but instead serve as a translation to make the score more universally understood. That zero to 100 score can then be used on consumer review websites and apps such as Yelp and Urbanspoon. As an example, take a look at this stellar health inspection score chart for a coffee shop in Louisville, KY. Because the municipal health department in Louisville has already adapted their scoring system into LIVES, Yelp is able to take that data and include it in the restaurant’s listing. Not only can potential customers clearly see that the coffee shop scored 96 out of 100 on its latest inspection, they can look back at all the restaurant’s inspection scores over the past five years. LIVES was first developed by Yelp in 2012 in partnership with the cities of San Francisco and New York. It’s already being used there, as well as in a handful of other jurisdictions around the U.S., including Los Angeles and Austin, TX. Over the next six months, Socrata hopes to significantly expand the number of participating jurisdictions by hosting a series of cohorts in which they will guide up to 10 jurisdictions through the process of adapting their scoring systems to LIVES over a two-month period. By the end of those two months, the jurisdictions will have set up a system for LIVES translation, as well as created a system to openly publish their health inspection data for consumers to more easily access the information. “So much work goes into collecting restaurant inspection scores. It’s an enormous undertaking to make sure consumers are protected and restaurants are complying,” said Sarah Schacht, Socrata’s public health data advisor. “The information can do so much to improve public health, but it has to be where the consumers are.” Consumers aren’t flocking to government websites to look up health inspection scores, Schacht said, but they do go to review-style apps. The LIVES system leverages the tools that consumers are already using to inform themselves about where to eat. In the process, it could protect consumers from bad actors — or publicly pressure the bad actors into cleaning up their act. Some evidence already exists to show that restaurants perform better in health inspections when the information is widely shared with the public. Cases of foodborne illness in Toronto dropped by 30 percent after the city introduced a health score placarding system in restaurant window fronts in 2002, suggesting that restaurants were more keen to avoid health violations when the score would be pinned up for all to see. Earlier this year, Yelp released its own study showing that restaurants with scores displayed on the website took more steps to improve their future inspection scores compared with restaurants with no visible score. But there’s still room for additional information. Schacht said she’s hoping to find more researchers interested in studying the correlation between the availability of health inspection scores and rates of foodborne illness. Socrata’s first cohort for government jurisdictions starts June 13 and wraps up in mid-August. Representatives and IT personnel from city, county and state agencies will work side by side under the direction of Socrata to get on board with the LIVES system and arrange an automated way to openly share their data. Schacht estimates that a government entity can get everything up to speed and automated with one person spending 20-25 hours on the project over the course of two months. “It’s a low-cost, high-impact way to fulfill the mission of public health,” she said.

  • Gary

    This is good. The only caveat is a poor score can affect a business for a very long time. Regulatory inspections are too infrequent in many regions so poor scores, even in restaurants that correct the problems, will have a long lasting effect on their business.

    I know the FSMA now requires food manufacturers to pay for any follow-up inspections by the FDA to verify completeness of corrective actions. I think the same type of process can be beneficial for the restaurant business. There are so many counties and cities that have their own process so maybe some regions already incorporate this.

  • Sansher

    I agree with Gary, many restaurants receive a poor score and its six months before anyone is in there again. Some States give their inspectors huge inspection territories spanning many miles and counties. With the result that the place gets “a lick and a promise” as my mother in law used to say, and it’s six months before they see the inspector again. However, that being said, restaurants with horrible food safety records (we all know a few) would certainly lose customers. This would have a huge impact here in Florida where so many people are tourists and know little to nothing about the Food Safety history of where they’re eating.

    • sarahschacht

      Sansher, thanks for your feedback. It’s possible to integrate the re-inspections into the scores showing up in LIVES. Several governments do.

      LIVES also shows the violations for each inspection, and several inspections over the last couple of years (depending on how far back the government goes with opening its data), which gives consumers a longer term view than a restaurant’s last inspection. Less “snap shot” perspective more “report card” perspective.

      Consistency is key in maintaining food safety, and by providing those scores in a full-scope (instead of snap shot) way, the data can reward consistent restaurants and alert consumers to low-consistency, ongoing food safety noncompliance.

      If you have more questions, or would like more info on the LIVES Access Program, or if your municipality would like to join one of our cohorts this summer, contact me at sarah dot schacht at socrata dot com.