Two texts. That’s all it takes to avoid potential stomach pains in Evanston, Ill.
Or at least, that was the goal behind an endeavor that pairs the city’s restaurant inspection scores on Yelp with text message alerts for diners. When the SMS program launched early in 2015 it was a quiet release. In fact, Erika Storlie, Evanston’s deputy manager, described the undertaking as more of a four-month side project than anything else.
The city had just completed a project with Yelp to feed restaurant inspection scores to the review site and wanted to investigate joining the scores with its 311 non-emergency texting app. The problem was, Evanston’s 311 app required a person on the other end to retrieve or record data and submit replies.
“So then, that began the exploration of, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be cool if we could text the restaurant name to 311 and automatically get the inspection score back?’” Storlie said. “It kind of came from the fact we were using these two different types of technologies and we wanted to marry them.”
Roger Wood, the city’s application analyst who coordinated much of the initiative, said they worked out an affordable deal with OneReach to provide the texting tech support along with the help of Accela, which provides open data services to the city, to iron out the rest. The program launched without much fanfare in February 2015, however, subtleties aside, now it appears this texting service may have bested Yelp in sheer practicality.
“I just know that with the advent of open data initiatives and these third-party services, they’ll allow you to publish data in formats that can be interpreted by anyone that wants to read them,” Wood said. “And so with that, the sky’s the limit I think.”
The proof is in the app. Whether it’s Evanston’s Kafein coffee house on Chicago Avenue or the Peckish Pig on Howard Street, finding scores is simple. Diners just text “food” to the city’s 311 number, and after a prompt, enter a restaurant name and they’re returned the recent score and inspection date.
It’s simple and much easier than Yelp’s mobile app, which compels users to tap and swipe their way to a restaurant’s “More Info” tab and deep dive through a list of miscellaneous information.
Since Yelp and the texting services launched, Evanston officials said there’s an interest in tracking how public scoring influences health inspections.
“We want to do more research down the road,” Storlie said. “It would be a real driver if, overall, city restaurant scores are raised because of the transparency.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year, about one in six Americans — or about 48 million people — are infected with foodborne illnesses. Of these, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 are killed.
Evanston seeks to be an anomaly in these statistics.
“We obviously do inspections for compliance and to ensure safety,” Storlie said. “So it just made sense to us to make that data available to people in a way that might be meaningful to them.”
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.