November 21, 2011 By Brian Heaton
If you’re hungry and on-the-go in California’s capital city, a new app can point you to the closest places to eat and how those restaurants scored in recent health inspections.
Called “Sacramento County Food Inspections,” the app shows a person’s current location in Sacramento County, Calif., and the nearby retail food facilities, which are marked on both a map and in a list. The color of the markers on the map indicate the most recent food inspection placard result, inspection date and links to view more detailed information.
Launched in September and developed by the Sacramento County Department of Technology, the program is the first mobile application built by Sacramento County.
Rami Zakaria, Sacramento County’s new CIO, said that while the county has had a website with food facility inspection reports for the past six or seven years, county staff wanted to modernize with a smartphone application that could extend the information out to more people.
“The idea came up from one of the chief inspection officers who said if people were out and about, it would be nice to see what restaurants are there in the vicinity,” Zakaria explained.
“We’ve never done anything like [this] before,” he said. “We’ve had Web apps for years, but this takes it the next step forward, to say ‘what’s around me?’”
Jerry Gray, principal IT analyst with Sacramento County and the project’s lead developer, said developing native apps on multiple platforms was prohibitive. That’s why the Department of Technology decided to create a mobile website. But customer usability needs led Gray and his team to make some tweaks to their initial plan, bridging the gap between a mobile website and a mobile app.
The county’s food apps in the Android Market and Apple App Store act as forwarding links to the food inspection mobile site of the Sacramento County Environmental Management Department (EMD).
Gray recalled that after they deployed the app, EMD Director Val Siebal wanted the ability to go to the App Store and download an icon onto his screen, so Gray and his team put together app buttons for both Android and iOS that re-direct a user to the mobile website.
The data for the app is hosted with Google Fusion Tables. Gray said that he was initially drawn to it because it streamlined the geolocation elements of the app and by pulling up location data through Google Maps. The map appears with all the little pin dots of the particular locations in it already.
“From a mapping perspective, it gave us a lot of bang for the buck, or for the ‘no buck’ in this case,” Gray said.
The project began in May and the app took approximately 140 hours to build. Gray said that only county staff members were involved with the development and the team consisted of himself and four others.
The food inspection data for the app refreshes daily and is complete for all food facilities in Sacramento County, including restaurants, bars, grocery stories, convenience stores, school cafeterias and most facilities that dispense food to the public, according to county officials.
The early returns for the department’s work on the app have been promising. Gray said that the feedback has been positive and 25 to 28 percent of the traffic that went to the old Sacramento County food inspection website has moved over to the mobile app, justifying their efforts on the project.
No changes to the app are currently planned, but Gray indicated that he’d like to get the message out to app developers that the data set for the food inspection information is available to use and expand upon, perhaps including that info in other restaurant location finder applications.
Gray said during the development phase the county Environmental Management Department brought up the idea of including functionality that would allow users to categorize results based on the type of restaurant, but the department’s inspection report data doesn’t classify what type of food is at a facility.
“Their data collection in their database doesn’t differentiate the cuisine or type of restaurant,” Gray said. “They categorize it for their purposes as a restaurant or catering establishment or some general things like that, but they don’t know the difference between American, Italian — it’s just not in their database.”
Although future development on the Sacramento County Food Inspections app seems unlikely, Zakaria said that the county is considering building other types of mobile apps. Specifically, he mentioned an app that would give a person the location of his or her nearest polling place.
“If you are an absentee voter and you were late mailing your ballot, instead of having to drive from anywhere to our main headquarters, you could go to any polling place to drop it off,” Zakaria said.
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