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The Secret Double Life of Yelp: Tracking Foodborne Illnesses

by Brandon Russell | May 23, 2014May 23, 2014 7:00 pm PST

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Yelp is a terrific source for finding good (and not so good) places to dine and visit. But it’s also becoming an informant of sorts regarding foodborne illness. Officials from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in New York have been tracking the business review service for the past several months, successfully identifying restaurants that have made people sick. Yelp probably isn’t the number one candidate for health-related issues—not like WebMD. But it’s quickly shaping into a pretty helpful resource.

Tracking illnesses before they spread, such as salmonella, is crucial for health services in larger metropolitan areas. The quicker a source is found, the quicker a problem is taken care of. Officials say they were able to build software capable of tracking Yelp for hotwords, such as “sick,” “vomit,” and (ugh) “diarrhea,” along with other key words. Although the project is just in the pilot phase, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene were able to identify three instances when 16 people got sick—even down to exactly what they ate, and where.

The project is expected to continue; officials will also supplement the program with other social media sources, such as Twitter, Google Flu Trends and more. What’s particularly useful about Yelp, however, is that officials can easily identify individual users, and fast. The CDC said people don’t usually report food-borne illnesses, which is why Yelp is becoming so useful. The report also lists some pretty gruesome details about the restaurants that cause illnesses, including an instance of live roaches and mice. That’s obviously invaluable information for officials, and important for the public to know.

“We’re now taking this a step further by providing a two-way street for the data: alert environmental health inspectors when an outbreak occurs while providing the latest inspection information to diners,” said Luther Lowe, Yelp’s director of government affairs.

So remember when you write your next restaurant review: you could be providing health officials with valuable information. And, in turn, you’ll find out that you ate food prepared near live roaches.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell likes to rollerblade while listening to ACDC.