“My husband ate at this restaurant on Friday 10/16/2015 and was admitted to the ICU with a bacterial infection from food poisioning [sic],” Kari F. wrote on the Mariscos San Juan Yelp page on Oct. 19. “It was a very scary experience for all. I hope that others affected are healing and doing ok. My heart goes out to you all.” The outbreak of Shigella linked to the seafood restaurant in downtown San Jose, CA, has sickened at least 182 people so far and is reminding people of the power of social media when it comes to tracking foodborne illness. In the past few years, jurisdictions across the country have begun publishing health inspection scores on Yelp using a standardized scoring system called LIVES, or Local Inspector Value Entry Specification. San Francisco was the first to take part in 2013 and, since then, eight other municipalities in California, Kentucky, North Carolina, Illinois and Colorado have joined in. And Socrata, a tech company that’s working to make government data more easily accessible, will soon be launching LIVES in 50 counties of one as-yet-unnamed state and in all 350 jurisdictions under the Food Standards Agency’s regulation in the U.K. According to research conducted by Yelp over the past couple of years, restaurants told that their scores were displayed on the website took more steps to improve their future inspection scores.

Panelists (from left): Daniel Castro, director, Center for Data Innovation (moderator); Luther Lowe, vice president of public policy and government affairs, Yelp; Carey Anne Nadeau, CEO, Open Data Nation; Sarah Schacht, public health data advisor, Socrata, and Jack Madans, product growth manager, Code for America.
“Even though we don’t have peer-reviewed research on that yet, it seems to be having some effect on restaurant behavior,” said Sarah Schacht during a Center for Data Innovation panel on foodborne illness held Tuesday in Washington, D.C. Schacht is a public health data advisor for Socrata. Yelp also announced Tuesday that it has started offering hygiene consumer alerts for San Francisco restaurants in the bottom 5 percent of health scores. The alerts appear as pop-ups on the Yelp pages for these 150 restaurants. But consumers aren’t the only ones who can benefit from open data. Local governments have started exploring how it can be used to forecast food safety problems. Last year, Chicago tried using data analysis to predict which food establishments would be most likely to have critical violations so that they could be inspected first. During the pilot, 25 percent more critical violations were identified and they were found, on average, 7.5 days earlier. And Montgomery County, MD, has been working with Open Data Nation to adapt Chicago’s publicly available model for its own local government use. “We’re seeing if it’s possible to take what we know can work in one city and bring it to another place and figure out how to scale it from there,” Open Data Nation CEO Carey Anne Nadeau said during Tuesday’s panel. She later told Food Safety News that the goal over the next year is to get similar algorithms running in another 10 cities. These are examples of jurisdictions “being proactive stewards of public health,” Schacht said. Barbara Feder Ostrov of Kaiser Health News reported last week that, in the case of the Shigella outbreak, Santa Clara County epidemiologists haven’t used Yelp in their investigation and that the online reviewers were not ahead of public health officials. Even so, it demonstrates why investigative work now needs to include social media outlets, Schacht said. “There are opportunities to truncate outbreaks early in the process and achieve the agency’s objectives in new and enriching ways,” she explained. Some research has shown that social media reports of illness can be helpful to epidemiologists. Public health workers in New York City worked with Columbia University in 2014 to create a program for identifying incidents of illness from Yelp reviews, and it allowed them to identify three previously undetected outbreaks. Another study, published in Preventive Medicine in 2014, found that foodborne illnesses reported by Yelp reviewers matched up with statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for foods implicated in outbreaks. Schacht said that her other key takeaway from the Mariscos San Juan situation is that the public health community needs to think about how to better engage with foodborne illness victims. Oftentimes, many people don’t know which department of their local government to contact when they get sick. She said one solution may be to include links on Yelp that direct consumers to the appropriate reporting system. “There has been a massive proliferation of data … but it’s connecting them to those secondary questions that provide meaning and insight that help us do our jobs better in government or make better decisions as consumers,” Nadeau said. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)