Yelp, Socrata Partner to Make Restaurant Inspections Public

Though this behind-the-scenes data integration will help millions of people benefit from better health information, it likely will take some time for governments to get on board.

by / January 16, 2015
Jeremy Stoppelman, co-founder and CEO of Yelp, speaks at a panel discussion during the Digital Life Design Conference on January 20, 2014 in Munich, Germany. Flickr/Hubert Burda Media

Yelp has grown to be a staple for word-of-mouth reviews. But now, the San Francisco-based company, popularized for its restaurant ratings, has partnered with the open data company Socrata to expand its services related to health department inspections.

On Jan. 14, the two companies unveiled a strategic partnership to deliver restaurant inspection data to inform citizens not only nationwide, but also globally. The deal will give Yelp additional legitimacy for its reviews, access to new content via Socrata’s city and county client databases, and technical expertise to implement the open data initiative.

“We're thrilled to be working with Socrata and its network of partners to make this valuable information more accessible to the millions of people that turn to Yelp every month,” said Jeremy Stoppelman, Yelp’s CEO and co-founder.

And Socrata benefits with a new value proposition for clients and cities, who can embed their data inside the Yelp platform — their site and mobile app that boasts more than 67 reviews and averaged 139 million unique visitors in the third quarter of 2014. Yelp has similarly committed to joining Socrata’s recently released Open Data Network (ODN)  —  meant to be a hub for industry open data collaboration and a one-stop repository for a multiplicity of diverse data sets.

Beyond pure business sense, the partnership notches a win for citizens, who can expect heightened accountability from restaurant owners. Yelp and the city of San Francisco already have tested the open data initiative through Yelp’s Local Inspector Value Entry Specification (LIVES). Said simply, the lengthy title refers to a standard format for health inspection data for easy upload to Yelp.

Pull up a popular eatery like San Francisco’s Boudin Bakery & Cafe on Fisherman’s Wharf and visitors can see their health inspection score, 96 out of 100 — relatively high. They can also see areas of improvement for the restaurant, violations that include “unapproved or unmaintained equipment or utensils.” The information has always been public, but now it’s placed in an easily digestible format for citizens.

“We are very excited to launch this partnership with Yelp, the global leader in crowdsourced reviews for local businesses,” said Kevin Merritt, CEO and founder of Socrata, in a release. “With this behind-the-scenes data integration, millions of people will be able to benefit from better health information, which will ultimately improve their lives.”

Next steps, however, require a dedicated effort and won’t arrive overnight. Based on Socrata’s research, a majority of U.S. cities do not yet publish restaurant inspections, nor do they collect it in a digital-friendly format. Ian Kalin, Socrata’s director of open data, said most cities have the information bundled in batches of PDFs; if they’re slightly more advanced, it might be an Excel document. As such, the leap to tools like open data portals and application programming interfaces (APIs) can be daunting without help — tech support which Socrata is freely offering to clients.

“My hope is that it will be a rapid expansion, but realistically, since this service is something new, I think it’s going to be more of an organic experimental process for a lot governments,” Kalin said. “They might need a little time to take advantage of the great new service.”

What is certain is a demand from governments to put the information out there for the public. Most counties and larger municipalities, Kalin said, are ardently trying to release open data — whether this be for food inspection data or other varieties — yet resources aren't always available.

“Open data — and any data — put in an isolated location is useless,” said Kalin. “Data is only valuable when it can be consumed, when it can drive insights, when it can help people in their daily lives to make decisions or accomplish their goals.”

Requests of San Francisco for comment about its pilot, and how the Yelp/Socrata partnership will affect city governments, were not returned by press time.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

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