Chicago taps tweets to combat food poisoning cases

By Assistant Sports & Health Editor

An app that scans Twitter for keywords related to food poisoning is putting the power to recommend restaurants for inspection directly into the hands of Chicago residents.

The app, Foodborne Chicago, launched in March 2013 and has classified more than 3,000 tweets resulting in hundreds of reports being filed directly through the service. The project is the Midwest’s response to what may be a growing trend of governments staying on top of social media to better address public health issues. Similarly, New York City’s Department of Public Health and Mental Hygiene has begun to investigate potential food poisoning cases based on data taken from online restaurant reviews.

With Foodborne Chicago, when a Twitter user tweets in the city about an incidence of suspected food poisoning, the city reaches out and provides them with a form to fill out a detailed complaint. Completed forms are then reviewed and the public health department determines whether or not the food vendor or restaurant in question warrants an investigation.

Each year in the U.S., 55–105 million people experience acute gastroenteritis—inflammation in the stomach lining characterized by vomiting, diarrhea, nausea and cramps—caused by foodborne bacteria. This results in treatment costs of $2–4 billion annually, according to a paper published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Aug. 15 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The CDC estimates that 45 percent of food poisoning cases—caused by exposure to bacteria from unsafe food environments—go unreported.

“Chicago’s health commissioner noticed that people were tweeting about getting sick at restaurants and thought it was an untapped resource that the city could use to improve reporting and investigation,” said Jenine Harris, author of the paper and an assistant professor at Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work in St. Louis.

She said the design of Foodborne Chicago was developed through a collaboration between the health department’s Healthy Chicago program and Smart Chicago. 

“The app consumes three of the [search codes built into the back end of Twitter] related to a particular phrase and within a particular boundary, in this case, ‘food poisoning’ within Chicago,” said Daniel X. O’Neil, executive director of Smart Chicago and a developer of the app. 

O’Neil said that once Foodborne flags a tweet based on those standards, it runs through a natural language processing system. The app is then able to determine with some degree of accuracy which tweets are related to legitimate cases of food poisoning within city limits.

Harris said Foodborne Chicago does not have a way to follow whether the people who are sent the form via Twitter are the same people who are filing the incident reports that Foodborne receives.

“We’ve replied to about 270 tweets so far, and 193 forms were filled out,” Harris said. “While we can’t match them directly, we think it’s having a good response.”

Once a form is filled out and submitted, the process of addressing the complaint is similar to traditional reports filed through Chicago’s 311 system, according to Raed Mansour, an executive assistant to the Commissioner for Chicago’s Department of Public Health.

Mansour said in an email that if an inspection is carried out based on a complaint, the results of that inspection are uploaded into an online tracker where the person who filed the complaint can be updated about the status of his or her submission. He said a portion of the food poisoning cases that go unreported could stem from individuals being unaware of how to contact their local health departments about the incident, but developers are actively seeking user feedback to continue to improve the system.

“[A civic user testing group] we performed recently helped us decide how to modify the website to make it more effective,” O’Neil said. “We’re monitoring the success of the project, and we’ll be making updates to the interface to account for what we discover.”

According to Mansour, the basic code for the Foodborne Chicago app is available online for anyone to copy and adapt for use in different cities. He said the technology the app is based on is rapidly evolving and the app is expected to become more efficient along with it.  

“You can’t underestimate the visibility of Chicago’s 311 system,” O’Neil said. “We’re just a part of the overall infrastructure of communication between the resident and the city. People know that the city cares about their physical health.”