City Governments Are Using Yelp to Tell You Where Not to Eat

Michael Luca and Luther Lowe at HBR Blog: “…in recent years consumer-feedback platforms like TripAdvisor, Foursquare, and Chowhound have transformed the restaurant industry (as well as the hospitality industry), becoming important guides for consumers. Yelp has amassed about 67 million reviews in the last decade. So it’s logical to think that these platforms could transform hygiene awareness too — after all, people who contribute to review sites focus on some of the same things inspectors look for.

It turns out that one way user reviews can transform hygiene awareness is by helping health departments better utilize their resources. The deployment of inspectors is usually fairly random, which means time is often wasted on spot checks at clean, rule-abiding restaurants. Social media can help narrow the search for violators.
Within a given city or area, it’s possible to merge the entire history of Yelp reviews and ratings — some of which contain telltale words or phrases such as “dirty” and “made me sick” — with the history of hygiene violations and feed them into an algorithm that can predict the likelihood of finding problems at reviewed restaurants. Thus inspectors can be allocated more efficiently.
In San Francisco, for example, we broke restaurants into the top half and bottom half of hygiene scores. In a recent paper, one of us (Michael Luca, with coauthor Yejin Choi and her graduate students) showed that we could correctly classify more than 80% of restaurants into these two buckets using only Yelp text and ratings. In the next month, we plan to hold a contest on DrivenData to get even better algorithms to help cities out (we are jointly running the contest). Similar algorithms could be applied in any city and in other sorts of prediction tasks.
Another means for transforming hygiene awareness is through the sharing of health-department data with online review sites. The logic is simple: Diners should be informed about violations before they decide on a destination, rather than after.
Over the past two years, we have been working with cities to help them share inspection data with Yelp through an open-data standard that Yelp created in 2012 to encourage officials to put their information in places that are more useful to consumers. In San Francisco, Los Angeles, Raleigh, and Louisville, Kentucky, customers now see hygiene data alongside Yelp reviews. There’s evidence that users are starting to pay attention to this data — click-through rates are similar to those for other features on Yelp ….

And there’s no reason this type of data sharing should be limited to restaurant-inspection reports. Why not disclose data about dentists’ quality and regulatory compliance via Yelp? Why not use data from TripAdvisor to help spot bedbugs? Why not use Twitter to understand what citizens are concerned about, and what cities can do about it? Uses of social media data for policy, and widespread dissemination of official data through social media, have the potential to become important means of public accountability. (More)