How Yelp Could Help Save Millions in Health Care Costs

Okay, before I dive in, a few things.

1) Sorry for the lack of posts last week. Life’s been hectic. Between Code for America, a number of projects and a few articles I’m trying to get through, the blogging slipped. Sorry.

2) I’m presenting on Open Data and Open Government to the Canadian Parliament Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee today – more on that later this week

3) I’m excited about this post

When it comes to opening up government data many of us focus on Governments: we cajole, we pressure, we try to persuade them to open up their data. It’s approach we will continue to have to take for a great deal of the data our tax dollars pay to collect and that government’s continue to not share. There is however another model.

Consider transit data. This data is sought after, intensely useful, and probably the category of data most experimented with by developers. Why is this? Because it has been standardized. Why has it been standardized. Because local government’s (responding to citizen demand) have been desperate to get their transit data integrated with Google Maps (See image).

It turns out, to get your transit data into Google Maps, Google insists that you submit to them the transit data in a single structured format. Something that has come to be known as the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS). The great thing about the GTFS is that it isn’t just google that can use it. Anyone can play with data converted into the GTFS. Better still, because the data structure us standardized an application someone develops, or analysis they conduct, can be ported to other cities that share their transit data in a GTFS format (like, say, my home town of Vancouver).

In short, what we have here is a powerful model both for creating open data and standardizing this data across thousands of jurisdictions.

So what does this have to do with Yelp! and Health Care Costs?

For those not in the know Yelp! is a mobile phone location based rating service. I’m particularly a fan of its restaurant locator: it will show you what is nearby and how it has been rated by other users. Handy stuff.

But think bigger.

Most cities in North America inspect restaurants for health violations. This is important stuff. Restaurants with more violations are more likely to transmit diseases and food born illnesses, give people food poisoning and god knows what else. Sadly, in most cases the results of these tests are posted in the most useless place imaginable. The local authorities website.

I’m willing to wager almost anything that the only time anyone visits a food inspection website is after they have been food poisoned. Why? Because they want to know if the jerks have already been cited.

No one checks these agencies websites before choosing a restaurant. Consequently, one of the biggest benefits of the inspection data – shifting market demand to more sanitary options – is lost. And of course, there is real evidence that shows restaurants will improve their sanitation, and people will discriminate against restaurants that get poor ratings from inspectors, when the data is conveniently available. Indeed, in the book Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency Fung, Graham and Weil noted that after Los Angeles required restaurants to post food inspection results, that “Researchers found significant effects in the form of revenue increases for restaurants with high grades and revenue decreases for C-graded (poorly rated) restaurants.” More importantly, the study Fung, Graham and Weil reference also suggested that making the rating system public positively impacted healthcare costs. Again, after inspection results in Los Angeles were posted on restaurant doors (not on some never visited website), the county experienced a reduction in emergency room visits, the most expensive point of contact in the system. As the study notes these were:

an 18.6 percent decline in 1998 (the first year of program operation), a 4.8 percent decline in 1999, and a 5.4 per- cent decline in 2000. This pattern was not observed in the rest of the state.

This is a stunning result.

So, now imagine that rather than just giving contributor generated reviews of restaurants Yelp! actually shared real food inspection data! Think of the impact this would have on the restaurant industry. Suddenly, everyone with a mobile phone and Yelp! (it’s free) could make an informed decision not just about the quality of a restaurant’s food, but also based on its sanitation. Think of the millions (100s of millions?) that could be saved in the United States alone.

All that needs to happen is for a simple first step, Yelp! needs approach one major city – say a New York, or a San Francisco – and work with them to develop a sensible way to share food inspection data. This is what happened with Google Maps and the GTSF, it all started with one city. Once Yelp! develops the feed, call it something generic, like the General Restaurant Inspection Data Feed (GRIDF) and tell the world you are looking for other cities to share the data in that format. If they do, you promise to include it in your platform. I’m willing to bet anything that once one major city has it, other cities will start to clamber to get their food inspection data shared in the GRIDF format. What makes it better still is that it wouldn’t just be Yelp! that could use the data. Any restaurant review website or phone app could use the data – be it Urban Spoon or the New York Times.

The opportunity here is huge. It’s also a win for everyone: Consumers, Health Insurers, Hospitals, Yelp!, Restaurant Inspection Agencies, even responsible Restaurant Owners. It would also be a huge win for Government as platform and open data. Hey Yelp. Call me if you are interested.

21 thoughts on “How Yelp Could Help Save Millions in Health Care Costs

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  2. Jack Repenning

    Two questions:

    Why is it more attractive to work with the restaurants than with the inspecting agencies? All the “government 2.0” and “transparency” stuff going on, these days, surely there’s more, and more effective, pressure on the agencies than on the individual restaurant owners.

    Why does it need a mobile app? Several counties in Southern California require restaurants to post their inspection grade in the window, with standard-issue signs. Seems to work pretty well.

  3. David Yip

    Good idea, and I imagine you’ve already contacted Yelp directly about it. I know I relied on Yelp heavily when I was in NYC — didn’t get sick, but hey — who knows.

    “Millions of dollars” seems slightly hyperbolic though. :P

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  5. Sue

    According to the CDC, more than 200 known diseases are transmitted through food. 325,000 hospitalized and 5,000 deaths…

    1. David Eaves

      Nice addition info Sue! David Yip – that’s why I said millions and millions. A night in the hospital in the US can easily cost 5K. The life of an American, easily in the $100,000s. Doesn’t take much improvement to hit 1, not to mention 10 or even 100 million.

  6. whatagreenidea

    Great article. It got me thinking about other applications.

    These are the ones that come to mind. Clearly they betray my own interest-areas but I wanted to show that its not just government bodies (local, city, state level) that have this data.

    I imagine the data required for these applications would cover the full spectrum – from highly standardised data at one end (probably where that data has been collected at national level) to highly fragmented data, in need of a GTFS-esque standard, at the other (probably where that data has been collected at state, or local level).

    * plan the safest bicycle route to your office
    – DATASOURCE: bicycle accident and ‘blackspot’ data (government), PLATFORM: journey planning websites

    * buy a train ticket online from the most-reliable train operator on that route
    – DATASOURCE: train performance data (government), PLATFORM: train-ticket aggregation website (e.g in the UK)

    * search for a Japanese restaurant in your town that sources its fish sustainably
    – DATASOURCE: Non Government Organisations (NGO), PLATFORM: Yelp,etc

    * browse for a house to buy or rent that has a high energy efficiency performance rating or low flood risk
    – DATASOURCE: Government, PLATFORM: real-estate aggregation websites

    * research companies to add to your stock portfolio, using corporate social responsibility as one of your criteria
    – DATASOURCE: independent research firms, NGOs, ratings agencies, PLATFORM: self-trade websites (Etrade etc) and private “Wealth Management Portfolio” platforms provided by investment banks

  7. Barrie Real Estate

    That is an awesome idea to include the food inspection data on all location based websites, not only Yelp. But that would entails a lot of work and coercion to include that data in their websites, I just hope that it can be done for all cities worldwide for the benefit of all.

  8. cdjeremy

    Great post David. I completely agree.
    I would add that there’s no reason the information can’t flow both ways: Wouldn’t it be great if health inspectors could use the yelp data? For instance if they could watch for certain key phrases like “dirty counters” or “a mouse snatched my lettuce”, it’d be easy, I assume, to flag such restaurants for re-examination.

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