Digital Sleuthing and Engagement to Battle Foodborne Illness in Chicago

Foodborne Chicago would not have been possible had Department leadership not embraced innovation. Luckily, innovative ideas were brimming at the department—in 2011, the department unveiled an open data portal, publishing food inspection results, and officials were attending Tuesday “Hack Nights” that drew the city’s brightest minds in technology to improve civic engagement. That led to a partnership among the department, Code for America, and the Smart Chicago Collaborative to launch 311. The department made all its coding on Foodborne Chicago public. “Publicly publishing codes also allows other civic techs, universities and health departments to apply it locally, customizing it as they see fit, thus spreading the tech knowledge and spurring further innovation in the field,” notes Mansour.

Ever since 1876, when Chicago’s first health commissioner, Oscar Coleman De Wolf, called for sanitary inspectors to inspect the city’s slaughterhouses and confiscate tainted meat, the Windy City—like most jurisdictions—has battled foodborne illness largely through a gaggle of inspectors randomly checking 16,000 food establishments. Sometimes, inspectors get leads from the public—some hot, some not—which occasionally can prevent or halt a foodborne illness outbreak. 

Considering that one in six Americans experience a food-related illness each year, this traditional method to combat foodborne illnesses has room for improvement. In fact, according to CDC, foodborne illness costs the nation as much as $4 billion annually, hospitalizing 128,000 people, and killing 3,000 of them.

To that end, Chicago’s Department of Public Health has embraced innovation and turned to 21st Century technologies in an effort to gain an upper hand on one of public health’s most incessant problems. By turning to social media, information technology and smart computing, the department is able to more quickly identify foodborne illness and can better squelch potential food-poisoning outbreaks. Such tools, for instance, lead to the discovery of more critical health violations than traditional means—20 percent vs. 16 percent—in the first 10 months alone.

As a result, the department may prevent outbreaks that people don’t report by calling 311. Launched in 2012, Chicago’s 311 system allows residents to file suspected food poisoning complaints, with the department’s Food Protection Services following up and dispatching inspection teams to a flagged restaurant, if warranted. 

However, the typical resident may be unaware they can file a complaint, much less how they might do so. CDC estimates that about 45 percent of foodborne illnesses go unreported. With the help of community partners, Chicago’s health department made it easier for those potentially afflicted with food poisoning to lodge a complaint with the 2013 launch of Foodborne Chicago. 

Foodborne Chicago is a website aimed at improving food safety in the city by identifying and responding to complaints on Twitter about possible foodborne illnesses. The website tracks Twitter messages around Chicagoland, using an algorithm that fixates on local mentions of “food poisoning.” Project staff use Twitter to reply to the “food poisoning” tweets, encouraging those individuals to file a complaint and providing them a direct link to the 311 complaint page.

“There are conversations going on around us,” said Raed Mansour, ‎who serves as the project’s lead at Chicago’s Department of Public Health. “We could ignore those conversations, or engage.” Thanks to Foodborne Chicago, “we are getting complaints that we previously hadn’t been—and getting them in real time—and we’re getting more critical violations overall, “said Mansour. 

For example, in the first 10 months after launching Foodborne Chicago, project staff identified 270 tweets with specific complaints of foodborne illness, leading to 193 complaints of food poisoning submitted to Foodborne Chicago. Of those, 10 percent sought medical care, and a total of 133 establishments received health inspections.

Nearly 92 percent of those immediately targeted for inspection received at least one violation. More importantly, 20 percent, compared to 16 percent of inspections not prompted by Foodborne Chicago, revealed at least one critical violation, or an “immediate health hazard.” Critical violations are more likely to result in foodborne illness and must be fixed immediately or else the establishment gets shuttered. 

But here’s the thing: machine learning explores the construction and study of algorithms and learns from data. In other words, it becomes smarter and more precise over time with prediction making. “We’re working on a 2.0 version,” said Mansour, adding that officials are looking to use this technology for other applications, such as tracking influenza or other communicable diseases. The department also is working with Yelp to integrate Foodborne Chicago into its ratings platform, and with New York City, St. Louis, Baltimore and Boston to help these jurisdictions launch similar efforts. 

City officials say Foodborne Chicago is a big win, as it helps to keep residents healthy, improves the health conditions of restaurants, leads to collaborations across the city with more organizations tackling foodborne illness, and allows the public health department to better engage with residents. “We find people thanking us on Twitter,” says Mansour.