When Chicago health officials saw Twitter users complaining about local food poisoning episodes, they reached out on Twitter to those users and often ended up charging the restaurant in question with a violation.
“We know that the majority of cases of foodborne outbreaks really never end up getting reported to the local health department anywhere in the country,” Dr. Bechara Choucair told Reuters Health in a phone call.
“We realize the people might not pick up the phone and call the doctor, but they might go to Twitter and complain to the world that they got food poisoning from eating out,” he said.
Choucair and his colleagues in the Chicago Department of Public Health wondered if there was some innovative way for them to identify new cases of foodborne outbreaks in Chicago that are regularly missed.
So they enlisted a technological collaborative group called Smart Chicago to help them.
“Smart Chicago collaborative helped us develop an app that literally sifts through hundreds of thousands of tweets every day that are coming from Chicago or linked to Chicago that might include a reference to a food borne illness,” Choucair said.
The app, called Foodborne Chicago, uses an algorithm to identify tweets that might be related to food poisoning symptoms in or near Chicago.
The app then responds to the person who sent the original tweet, saying, “That doesn’t sound good. Help us prevent this and report where you ate here,” and includes a link to an online form for reporting the details.
Foodborne Chicago tweets as @foodbornechi.
As Choucair and his coauthors noted in a paper in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the program was launched in March 2013.
During the first 10 months of the program, Foodborne Chicago identified 270 tweets describing complaints of food poisoning.
A total of 193 complaints were then submitted through the website, which lead to unannounced health inspections at 133 restaurants.
The health inspectors found at least one critical violation in 20 percent of those restaurants. The usual rate for one critical violation during regular health inspections is about 16 percent, the authors say.
About 16 percent of the restaurants reported through Foodborne Chicago failed inspections and were closed.
“The overwhelming majority of people are really excited to know that their local government is listening - but not only just listening - is actually taking their complaint seriously and acting on it,” Choucair said.
Chicago isn’t the only city to use new technology to track food poisoning. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene examined restaurant reviews from an online review website to identify foodborne illness complaints.
“I think it's really progressive of health departments to start looking at signals online to figure out where to put their resources,” Ben Chapman told Reuters Health in a phone call.
Chapman is a food safety specialist and researcher with North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He wasn’t involved in the study.
‘The focus is on trying to identify outbreaks that may not have been seen from traditional public health signals through hospitals or reportable disease databases, so yeah, it's really good stuff,” Chapman said.
Chapman said there could be an issue with resources when people have to follow up with extra inspections based on all those tweets and online signals.
“But the good outweighs the bad,” he said.
Chapman said there is a movement for health departments to integrate their inspection reports directly into websites like Yelp, so that people can take that information into consideration when they’re searching for restaurants.
Choucair said his team would like to see this app utilized by other health departments across the country.
“The codes for the app are open to the public, we want people to use it,” he said.
For developers, the open-source software is available on GitHub, here: bit.ly/1zA0DPT.