Crowdsourcing Health Inspections With Yelp

CEO Jeremy Stoppelman on how to put that one-star review to work

Max Taylor/The Atlantic

"A cockroach ... was enjoying a stroll on my plate while I was eating. The server saw the cockroach crawling on our table and he didn't even pretend to look embarrassed. (Forget an apology!) He grabbed the cockroach with a napkin and left."

That's from a one-star Yelp review of an Italian restaurant in D.C. It's gross, it's useful. I won't go to that restaurant. (Also because the bruschetta's apparently nothing to write home about either.) But you know who should go there? Health inspectors.

That's one use for Yelp data, CEO Jeremy Stoppelman told Bloomberg's Jonathan Allen at the Washington Ideas Form on Thursday. Think of it as CompStat for restaurants. The NYPD developed CompStat, its computerized crime statistics tool, in the 1990s in order to better direct limited resources to highest-crime areas. Put "cops on the dots," in Commissioner William Bratton's words—that is, send them to where crime is concentrated, as indicated by dots on the precinct map—and you're more likely to catch perpetrators.

Health inspectors, too, are a limited resource. They can only visit so many restaurants. So one way to decide where they should go is essentially the opposite of how you should decide when you're hungry—look for the one-star reviews, the reports of critters, the accounts of taco-induced nausea. Researchers in some cities, Stoppelman said, have started looking into this possibility, developing lists of words, like "cockroach," whose appearance in Yelp reviews could be associated with a higher likelihood of health code violations.

In the meantime Yelp, along with the cities of San Francisco and New York, has developed a system to allow municipalities to upload health-inspection grades to restaurant reviews. So here's to better gastrointestinal health through data—and at the Tex-Mex place as on the subway, if you see something, by all means say something.