Food Inspection App, API Put Restaurants Under the Microscope

Food inspection app HDScores announces that it's opening troves of government inspection data to warn customers of shady restaurants — and aims to be the industry standard.

by / August 7, 2015
from their taco stand at the Cinco de Mayo celebration on the Portland waterfront. Flickr/Ron Dollete

America is well acquainted with his culinary expletives. From “f—ing rancid potatoes!” to “f—ing cucumbers!” to “I’ve got [cockroaches] in my f—ing hair!,” his reality TV rage has become a hallmark. But beyond the antics — most erupting from his restaurant rehab show Kitchen Nightmares — Gordon Ramsay’s conniptions on the culinary arts have served a purpose: They’ve pushed for health and outed a host of backdoor issues, whether it be mold, maggots or hunks of rotted meats.

Former Chef Matthew Eierman is attempting to perform the same Ramsay magic, only instead of prime-time rants, Eierman has opted for data sets and apps. As a seasoned foodie, Eierman’s done time as a barista, fish frier, steak griller and sous chef. He’s gone from Subway “Sandwich Artist” to a restaurant general manager and knows the score. Quoting statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Eierman said each year, food-borne illness kills about 3,000 Americans and injures more than 48 million — or about one in six people nationally. Collectively, medical costs tally in the billions. But of these ailments, many are preventable.

“The most common violations are failure to wash hands, cross contamination, and time and temperature violations,” Eierman said. “At least that’s what we have seen from our database of about 615,000 establishments’ food inspection reports.”

The database he refers to is affixed to HDScores, Eierman’s mobile health data app that rates restaurants and warns consumers based on food inspection records. Open the app and it dishes up official government restaurant reviews by user location, business name, tappable map or address. The app’s algorithm — created by using feedback from chefs, sanitation experts, data scientists and engineers  — serves up percentage ratings for each and gives options for deeper reading of inspection reports or sharing on social media. The data is also available on Microsoft’s Azure Marketplace.

The only possible gripe diners might lodge against HDScores doesn’t have anything to do with the app itself. Because some cities and states still don’t publish food inspection reports regularly online, not all restaurants are featured. It’s a problem that Eierman, an avid open data proponent, is attempting to remedy as his team updates the database weekly, collaborates with governments and provides data visualization tools free of charge.

“We don’t require governments to do anything except publish data that’s already publicly available,” Eierman said. “We aggregate, standardize and normalize, and do all of the hard work for our data management platform.”

Since Eierman bootstrapped his Maryland-based startup with $20,000 in January of 2012, his app has added restaurant data from nearly 30 states, and in May gained recognition with a listing on DATA.gov, the official U.S. open data portal for federal, state and local data.

To keep things simmering, Eierman announced on Aug. 4 that he’d opened up his entire database with the addition of an application programming interface (API). The development seeks to dish the food inspection data into pages of websites and civic apps across the country. Under its freemium business model, the data supplier allows API users 2,500 inspection reports a day before they're charged. For consumers, the app itself is completely free and without ads of any kind. “What the Health” is HDScores' only real competitor, and delivers a similar service, but only in 10 states that are mostly situated on the East Coast.

As a side order, HDScores has a Web version of its mobile app that can be freely embedded into the websites of health departments, news organizations and other information distributors. The goal is to be a recognized name in an emerging market.

Eierman said that while there is no official standard for a food inspection score nationally — despite the 15 organizations that monitor U.S. food supplies — he’s seeking federally friendly terms of service so that more federal jurisdictions and states can leverage the data. Talks are underway with restaurant insurance providers who are considering using the app’s scores to adjust rates.

“In this space there really is no ‘Kleenex’ of tissues, there is no brand recognition as far as a name brand goes,” Eierman said. “That’s what we want to be.”

 

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.