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New York City investigators have successfully used Yelp reviews to find hundreds of cases of food-borne illness and undiscovered health code violations.

It appears that all those uneasy stories we read on review sites can end up saving us from unpleasant nights.

“The results suggest that online restaurant reviews might help to identify unreported outbreaks of food borne illness and restaurants with deficiencies in food handling,” concludes the report.

After mining Yelp reviews for phrases like “I got sick” and other unsavory descriptions, health officials contacted reviewers, some of which led to re-inspection of restaurants. In some cases, the restaurants had been reviewed just days earlier, “The two investigations and the routine inspection identified multiple violations at each of the outbreak restaurants.”

For now, the Yelp investigation process is disturbingly slow. It takes around 8 days to find a review and interview the user. In that time, the restaurant continues to serve dangerous meals.

“We’re now taking this a step further by providing a two-way street for the data: Alert environmental health inspectors when an outbreak occurs while providing the latest inspection information to diners,” said Yelp’s director government affairs, Luther Lowe. He hopes the new collaboration will lead to a “dramatic reduction in food-borne illness”

The Yelp experience is another in a long line discoveries of how to mine social media for nuggets of health data.

  • Twitter has led researchers to HIV outbreaks
  • A rise in Google searches for flu symptoms can tip officials to an impending outbreak (though the accuracy is under contention).
  • Healthmap can scan international news for ‘strange illnesses’, which led experts in the US to an outbreak of H1N1 in Mexico

So, it turns out that oversharing is, in some cases, very good for all of us.

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