Yelp experiments with tracking food safety inspections

Yelp, the popular website and app that allows consumers to review everything from coffee shops to yoga studios, can now tell users dining in the San Francisco area if their chosen eatery has received a food safety rating of “poor” — meaning it was in the bottom 5% of area inspections.

As explained in a recent article, a pop-up box is being used as an experiment to warn users and is modeled off warnings Yelp places on businesses it suspects of soliciting fraudulent reviews. This addition however, could have a more far-reaching effect, according to San Francisco health inspectors.

Harvard Business School’s Michael Luca is tracking what will happen next. With Yelp’s cooperation, he’s looking for two effects: change in how consumers behave, and change in how restaurants do. Will diners shy away from these places, even when their poor health grades clash with tasty reviews? Will the restaurants themselves be shamed into upping their scores? The latter result would be much more significant.

“Without restaurant behavior change,” Luca said in the article, “It’ll be very hard to have a big effect on foodborne illness.”

According to the article, Yelp does not make any money partnering with city regulators on this initiative and is running a similar project in Boston.

“Yelp’s job is to predict in an online way the experience consumers can expect will happen in the offline world,” Luther Lowe, Yelp’s head of public policy, said in the article. “To the extent that we can augment the consumer opinions and ratings that our users rely on with government data that they’re creating with their tax dollars — that’s a great win-win.”

Luca acknowledges that business for the poor performers could go down, but what if, instead of nudging them to clean up, these notices push them out of business?

The article goes on to say that the National Restaurant Association says it supports consumer transparency, but points out that Yelp itself is largely unregulated. A lobbying group, which was also skeptical when Yelp first rolled out health inspection scores on restaurant pages on a limited basis two years ago, is worried in particular about timing. What if a dinged restaurant promptly improves, but it takes weeks or months for its public score to?

Yelp’s efforts raise fascinating questions about what happens to obscure government information when it becomes a lot more public.

“It’s our strong belief that this is something consumers have a right to see,” Lowe said referring to the health scores. This information is already public but where Yelp becomes a player in public health is when it shows you that information, packaged in a red-framed box, right at the moment when consumers are making a decision.

In some of Luca’s previous research, he’s found that the language contained in Yelp reviews — words like “dirty,” “moldy,” “pee” — can be analyzed to automatically identify food-safety threats. The sheer fact that consumers are writing things on the site that can be predictive of health violations implies that Yelp could be useful to policymakers, Luca said in the article. Those policymakers, in turn, he adds, can either turn a blind eye to the site’s intelligence or embrace it.

The article states that in Boston, Yelp ran a prediction tournament for algorithms that could forecast health inspection scores using the site’s ratings and reviews. Using the winning algorithm, Luca said, Boston could catch the same number of health violations with 40% fewer inspections, simply by better targeting city resources at what appear to be dirty-kitchen hot spots. Boston is now considering ways to use such a model.

Ideally, Luca said, none of this means that any restaurants have to go out of business. “The mark of success in this for me,” he says, “would be if businesses stop getting poor scores.”

There’s actually some precedent for that hope, the article explains. In the late 1990s, Los Angeles County began to require restaurants to post their health grades in the doorway, an old-school form of transparency other cities now follow, too. After that mandate went into effect, the C’s and D’s restaurants received quickly became A’s and B’s when posting was required. Research also later found one other effect: Hospitalizations for foodborne illnesses around Los Angeles dropped.

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