Sick Reviews

Today’s Foodie Friday Fun finds us at the intersection of food, data, and social media.

New York Skyline

(Photo credit: CJ Isherwood)

Yes I know we’ve been here before but today’s tidbit concerns an article in the NY Times the other day. The NYC Health Department conducted a pilot study using Yelp reviews to see if they could identify unreported outbreaks of food-borne illness.  Despite what some may think, not everyone calls the city to let them know they got sick eating someplace.  What many folks do, however, is post something on social media.  Since Yelp is the go-to site on dining out, it would make sense to start here.  One can easily see the effort expanding to other likely places – Twitter, Trip Advisor, etc.

So what did they find?

Using a software program developed by Columbia University, city researchers combed through 294,000 Yelp reviews for restaurants in the city over a period of nine months in 2012 and 2013, searching for words like “sick,” “vomit” and “diarrhea” along with other details. After investigating those reports, the researchers substantiated three instances when 16 people had been sickened.

Doesn’t sound like much but it’s a start.  Maybe you’re aware that Google tried something similar to help spot flu outbreaks.  There is a bigger business point here.  What the city is doing is growing big ears.  They’re learning to use the vast amount of self-reported data to eliminate problems in some cases before they’re actually reported via the official channels.  The three instances they found were open for business with no complaints on the official record.  Inspections turned up unclean conditions at all of them.

The real question is how are you going to do something similar in your business?  Maybe you’re watching your Facebook page for negative comments or responding to people pinging your brand account on Twitter.  What are you doing to get beyond those quasi-official channels?

I wrote the other day about the need to improve data quality.  Sure – in theory a bunch of vindictive people could trigger a health department visit by writing up negative posts containing keywords or phrases.  In theory, I could win the U.S. Senior Open.  Neither is likely to happen.  What is likely to occur, however, is that your competition will find new ways to seek out and use information to drive their businesses forward.  Will you be there with them?

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