There are 18,000 food establishments in Chicago. The Chicago Department of Public Health inspects all of them regularly, but it can’t get to all of them every single week.
That’s where it’s hoping the public can help.
In April, three volunteer coders from the city health department developed an app, FoodBorne Chicago
, that helps consumers report food poisoning cases in Chicago via Twitter
. This is turning out to be a way to reach patrons who wanted to file a complaint, but didn’t know how to do so.
Here’s how it works: There are 50,000 tweets from Chicagoans each day. The app has a special algorithm that searches for tweets that contain phrases such as “food poisoning” or references to feeling sick after eating at a given restaurant. As more tweets come in, the algorithm gets “smarter” and can detect bona fide cases of food poisoning.
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Next, the health department tweets to people who have reported some kind of food-borne illness. It offers the afflicted patrons a link to an online form so they can submit a complaint.
Here’s an example of what the city health department has tweeted to people:
This app is also tied in to the 311 city services number
. After submitting a report, the person will receive a service ticket number for his or her complaint. That way, the consumer can track the complaint and see what progress has been made on it.
“Our app will replace or complement most city apps, because it will be able to process automatically any incoming message from Twitter and route it through the appropriate departments through Online 311,” says Payal Patel, who helped build the app. “The federal, state, and local health departments will have a simple tool for flu, infectious outbreaks, emergency management, and hurricanes.”
So far, the Chicago Health Department has reached out to 105 people. Of those, 33 people have submitted forms. This has resulted in inspections of the facilities and as a result, changes have been made to those facilities. Violations that were corrected include not keeping the food at room temperature, not having the correct drainage in the sink, and issues with garbage.
“It’s important for residents to share their experiences,” says Brian Richardson, director of public affairs and community engagement. “In case there’s a problem, we can help address it. This is a real opportunity for Chicagoans to help their neighbors and fellow residents.”
Why don’t more people file complaints about food poisoning?
“It’s an issue nationwide,” Richardson says. “Sometimes, people may not think it’s an easy thing to do or that something won’t be done, but we’re helping make it easier for folks to see how quick and painless it can be.”
Jessica Levco is co-editor of Ragan's Health Care Communication News.