Could Open Data protect you from ending up puking your guts out?

Yesterday, Chipotle temporarily closed their restaurant in Sterling, VA due to multiple reports of customers getting sick with symptoms of novovirus.

This is not the first time Chipotle has had problems with food safety and not the first time trouble has been detected at this particular Chipotle location either. In May, 2015 the county inspectors found that location had a “critical violation” in the Employee Health category. The inspection information published does not indicate what specific health issue resulted in the violation but a novovirus infection would be in that category.

Loudoun County, VA restaurant inspection data is only published to their own web site. The data is not published in a manner that makes it easily used by other services, such as Yelp. Dozens of other cities, counties and states provide their inspection data in a format known as LIVES, which was pioneered by Yelp. Where Yelp has this open data available to them, they publish it alongside their restaurant review listings.

The Yelp listing for this Sterling, VA Chipotle location shows no letter grade since the county does not publish the inspection data in LIVES format. Los Angeles County does embrace Open Data transparency, and that is why the Yelp listing for a Chipotle in Santa Monica, for instance, does show that location’s latest health inspection grade — an A. Yelp even provides a link to the details of that inspection and recent prior inspections.

But does this open data even improve health, such as prevention of a health issue from occurring?

It is hard to know. That Chipotle Santa Monica location has had multiple violations already this year for not meeting the standard of “Hands clean and properly washed; gloves used properly” which is relevant here as ”Cases of norovirus stemming from restaurants can often involve a worker who failed to wash his or her hands after going to the bathroom.” Yet the result nonetheless was that they received an A grade for each inspection visit even with these violations.

And Chipotle ranks among the top chain restaurants for L.A. County inspection scores, as I learned from my previous analysis!

So even having inspection scores and violation details published by the government health inspectors and that information showing up next to restaurant reviews still may not be enough to cause restaurants to give proper attention to food safety. About the only thing that seems to get their attention is the negative impact on their stock prices when word gets out about customers getting sick. Here is Chipotle’s share price chart from earlier today.

The health inspectors weren’t the first to know of the customer complaints. Even if the restaurant had known about the complaints, they didn’t take the necessary precaution of closing the store and sanitizing it until after so many customers reported getting sick on the crowdsourced restaurant information website IWasPoisoned.com.

If more of the inspecting agencies published their data in LIVES format, which would make it such that Yelp users could easily see the tarnished ratings, perhaps the restaurant operators would pay closer attention to food safety. But it won’t be the inspecting agencies pushing for this transparency. A Minneapolis inspector asserts that sharing inspection data results in resources wasted “fighting over the grade” with the restaurant operators rather than actually improving food safety. So we won‘t know if Yelp’s restaurant grade experiment can reach its potential to provide a benefit to the public primarily because of a lack of voluntary participation by the inspecting agencies, but also because those inspections have limited value when even poor results get the highest grade.

Perhaps a crowdsourced feedback approach like IWasPoisoned.com is more effective anyway.


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Stephen Gornick
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