Data Into Dollars: HDScores Serves Open Data On Restaurants
Wait! Before you bite into that hamburger, consider this. Food-born illness effects 1 in 6 Americans. Every year, about 52% of all those food-born illnesses occur at restaurants (and another alarming 4% at schools and hospitals.) In all, it adds up annually to a $77.7 billion impact on the US’s economy in missed time from work, food waste, and medical costs.
So, how clean is your neighhorhood deli? Presumably, its inspected by your local Health Department and isn’t gross enough to be shut down. But is it really safe to eat there?
According to Matthew Eierman, CEO and founder of HDScores, Health Department ratings can be confusing. “New York City works on an ‘ABC’ system of inspection reporting. But a ‘B’ means there are 14 to 21 violations in an establishment, which is pretty disgusting, in my opinion.”
Eierman is a chef by training, who a year and a half ago was helping some friends open a restaurant outside of Annapolis, Maryland. “We wanted to find out how clean the place was kept by the previous owners,” he said in an interview with Socrata. “But we had to search for two and a half hours through images of PDFs sorted only by month, not searchable by name or location or anything sensible. It just seemed wrong and like an opportunity to do things better.”
Since 2012, Eierman’s company, HDScores has collected open data from Health Departments in 884 jurisdictions, which (in round numbers) translates to 530,000 establishments, 3 million inspection reports, and 9 million line item violations – stemming from a box on the floor to rats in the kitchen. Those establishments aren’t just restaurants, but include catering services, hospitals, schools, churches with commercial kitchens, basically, anywhere food is sold or served to the public.
HDScores is standardizing all this data to make it available and accessible for consumers. Of course, that’s been a complicated process, Eierman admits, “Inspections are done, for the most part, on the local level. So we’ve got to understand all the various terms of service, laws, and policies concerning how the data is published. Then we need to aggregate the data, which is mostly unstructured.”
Over 100 HDScores bots pull data on a daily basis, which is essentially real time for inspections as most jurisdictions post only once a day. Then the company goes to work on normalizing the data, which can be tricky as much of it is hand entered from paper forms, so it needs to be corrected for spelling and other errors. (As a side note, Eierman says that a full third of all jurisdictions are still keeping health inspection data only on paper.)
From there, the cleaned-up data goes onto the consumer, where HDScores makes it as friendly as possible. In mid-August, the company will launch an iOS app, which will be quickly foliowed by one for Android devices, and then a web version. “If you can use a Google map or a search bar, you’ve already mastered our front end,” Eierman says.
Instead of the potentially misleading “ABC” ranking, HDScores offers a 100 point system with clear symbols to indicate the kind of violation an establishment has. “For example,” Eierman suggested, “You’ll see a restaurant has an 87 rating with a picture of a rat to indicate a pest problem and it will be easy to decide if you want to eat there.”
By early 2015, the company plans to launch a universal, cross-jurisdictional scoring system, so that when you are traveling, for instance, you won’t have to figure out the difference between Los Angeles’ or DC’s inspection results. Since food-born illness is a global issue, eventually, HDScores will include data on inspections from Canada, the UK, and other European and Asian nations. The company currently has access to health inspection data from 15 counties.
Opening health inspection data and making it comprehensible to the public makes great business sense contends Eierman. “When New York City, released their inspection data, the City and State collected an additional $100 million in sales tax revenue, because consumer confidence rose.” Meaning, you’ll know whether or not to eat that hamburger.