Improving Public Health with Open Data

Municipal governments devote non-trivial resources conducting food safety inspections. These inspections require considerable bureaucratic infrastructure and highly trained staff, and play an essential part in protecting the public health.

And yet, despite this investment of time and resources many governments miss easy opportunities to extract additional value from this data that can further enhance efforts to protect public health and offer new insights into their communities. Here are some easy ways that local governments can get more value from food safety inspection results.

Engage with Partners & Collaborators

In Onondaga County, food safety inspections are conducted by the County Health Department. Like other counties, Onondaga County reports these results to the state where they are aggregated and made available in a variety of formats. This is important – and we’ll discuss more about state-level open data below – but it represents something of a missed opportunity for Onondaga County, as currently the Health Department just provides an embedded view of the aggregated state-level data on its public web site. Other Upstate counties do this as well.

It’s great that this data is made available, but it’s not the most user friendly or efficient way to allow the general public to view (or search for) specific restaurant inspection results. This is data that is in the interest of the County to share as broadly and widely as possible, and yet no effort is made to engage with potential partners outside government that could do new and creative things with this data.

Because this data is already hosted on the NY State Open Data Portal, it is perfectly positioned to be used by software developers and others in creating new applications. Making this data easy to search and more relevant to citizens as the make choices about where to dine can have a significant impact on public health by allowing people to make more informed choices. Moreover, as food services establishments become aware that this data is more easily accessible in a variety of different applications, it can provide a powerful incentive for them to take these inspections more seriously.

Best of all, since this data is already aggregated and hosted by the state there is a marginal cost of $0 to municipal governments for every new application or service that incorporates this data.

eatsafe – an open source web app for viewing food safety inspection results

As an example of how this data might be used to provide new viewing and searching options, consider EatSafeCNY – a web-based application that uses data specifically for Onondaga County and makes it easy to search, view and share inspection results. This application is built with open source components, is hosted on a free web service and was created at virtually no cost in a few short days. This is just one of any number of different apps that could be built to share this data more broadly.

In order to leverage the value of the data in this way, Onondaga County officials need to reach out to the local technology community, to signal to them that they are open to and encourage use of this data in new ways. In the absence of this outreach, awareness of the opportunity to use this data may be low and interest in building new apps may be stymied if it is not viewed as an important priority by county officials.

Uncover Local Insights

As touched on in a previous post, food safety inspection data can also be useful for local officials in providing new insights into business activity in their jurisdictions.

Some local governments require additional permitting for different classes of businesses, and enforcement of local ordinances requiring these additional permits can sometimes be a challenge. For example, the City of Rochester requires restaurants to obtain a business permit as a condition of operating in the city. In addition, Monroe County – in which the City of Rochester is located – also requires restaurants to obtain a permit, but through a  separate process (this is the list of permitted businesses that is used to conduct food safety inspections).

But what if an restaurant establishment in Rochester is unaware of the permit requirement from the city, or intentionally avoids registering with the city? Using county inspection data which is aggregated and made open by the state, it is possible to see if there are restaurants located in the City of Rochester that have registered with Monroe County and not the city. (It is also possible to use other data sources to identify unpermitted businesses as well.)

But this is just one example how using data from other governments can generate local insights. And while staff time and expertise to conduct this kind of work might be limited, there is often expertise (and desire) in the broader data community to help with projects like these. Other cities have developed collaborative relationships with universities and other groups of data users with an interest in working on real world projects with positive a local impact.

By making outreach to outside innovators and data users a priority, local governments can derive significant value and insights from existing data and provide better service to their citizens.

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