Kitchen photo via Dennis Wong
Kitchen photo via Dennis Wong

Like many restaurant goers, Seattle resident Sarah Schacht turned to Yelp last February when trying to find a place to dine with her family. The Ethiopian restaurant she picked seemed pretty good on the surface, with high marks on Yelp. But what she didn’t know is that the King County Board of Health had issued unsatisfactory scores in five out of six inspections, public information that she said was buried in the county’s antiquated Web site and not available on Yelp.

“If I would have known, I would have never stepped in there,” said Schacht, who was later hospitalized with a severe case of E. coli after eating at the restaurant. Now, Schacht, who happens to specialize in open government, is taking matters into her own hands.

She’s started a petition to overhaul the restaurant rating system at the King County Board of Health, looking to make the data more accessible to everyday consumers. She’s even volunteered to offer 30 hours of her time to the cause, given her expertise in open government. The petition notes:

Currently, King County Public Health (the agency that manages restaurant inspection ratings) has a website that hasn’t been upgraded since the early 2000’s, and a convoluted inspection ratings system that confuses consumers. None of these ratings are posted at restaurants. As a result, restaurants that don’t adhere to safety standards keep serving food to unknowing customers, and restaurants who are safe and clean don’t get rewarded for their work with an “A” rating.

Schacht tells GeekWire that the county’s system is “not meant for a mom with two kids trying to find a safe restaurant on their mobile app.” She’s also pushing the county to overhaul its rating system, instituting a basic “A, B, C” grading system and having those ratings posted on the doors of restaurants. And she wants to make the data accessible through review sites such as Yelp. San Francisco and other cities have already begun making restaurant inspection information available via the online review site, but Seattle (via King County) has yet to do so.

Schacht, who also contracted E. coli in 1993 from a Jack in the Box restaurant, wants that to change. Since Yelp is a consumer review site, she said it makes perfect sense to incorporate the scientific data collected by restaurant inspectors, data that is already readily available.

Started last week, the petition already has more than 800 signatures. “I couldn’t wait around and hear about other people getting sick,” said Schacht when asked why she started the petition.

Here’s more of her story from our media partners at KING 5 in which Schacht notes that information on the King County Web site is pretty “dense” and “not very user friendly.”

Comments

  • Ricky89

    I would love if Seattle made the grades available on the front windows of restaurants.

  • http://www.christopherbudd.com Christopher Budd

    To a degree though, didn’t Stephen Becker solve this problem two years ago with http://www.dinegerous.com? I actually use it and find it’s very effective.

    You profiled it and him (which is how I learned about it) here: http://www.geekwire.com/2011/find-nastiest-restaurants-seattle-click-button/

    • johnhcook

      Good point Christopher. I had forgotten about them.

      I think the key is to integrate data like this into some of the bigger services like Yelp, and the King County rating system — where higher scores are actually bad — is still in use and pretty confusing.

      • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

        I second John on this. It’s not that the information doesn’t exist somewhere – it’s just that it’s best for everyone if it exists where most people look.

        • http://www.christopherbudd.com Christopher Budd

          All fair points. I guess for me Dinegerous has been the place where I look because I’m not aware that information is anywhere else. Which probably makes the points about information being hard to find all the more noteworthy.

          Of course, all this has me thinking a great mobile app now would be one that combines this data with geolocation data so that if you walk into a restaurant with a high dangerous rating it automatically warns you. I could see an audible loud, retching sound as an option there. :)

          That would certainly encourage restaurants to clean up their act.

          • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

            Ooh, that’s a cool idea.

    • Dylan Wilbanks

      Yes and no. Yes in that he put a UI on the ratings. No in that the rating system is still really byzantine. A 10 could be a bunch of low-risk issues or one high-risk one. And it’s not clear what a 10 really means — is it horrible? Mediocre? Or actually pretty decent? Compare that to a 100 point system that deducts for violations. Everyone gets that 90/100 is good but could be better, where a 70/100 isn’t.

      Plus, there is a particular power to forcing a restaurant to post their most recent inspection notice in full view of the public vs. on a web app. You go to Alabama and every restaurant is aiming for a 100 because everyone will see that report when they order food — it’s in your face every single time you order at a counter or when you walk into the front of the house. (I see a lot of people complaining about “the nanny state” and Bloomberg, but down in Alabama and Georgia this has been the policy for decades.)

      Oh, and no because Dingerous does not work on Chrome/Mac for me. And it never has. Doesn’t show pins, can’t move around.

  • http://www.tatango.com Derek Johnson

    Awesome, the more exposure the ratings get, the more restaurants will care.

  • Eric LeVine

    It is a great idea to try and make this information much more transparent!

    I also find myself somewhat incredulous that Schacht has had E. Coli not once but twice courtesy of restaurants. Talk about bad luck!

  • Guest

    Yelp already includes health scores in some cities. It appears that it just hasn’t been rolled out in Seattle.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Yup. Tweeting @yelpseattle this article. Wonder what it would take …

  • Kishari Sing

    YES, PLEASE. I moved here from Los Angeles, where the A,B,C system is in use and the ratings are posted publicly on the front window. It gives customers the choice whether to patronize a restaurant that does not pass basic health inspections. I’m actually a little shocked that a foodie town like Seattle already hasn’t done this.

  • aaronbrethorst

    Yelp already includes health scores in some cities (like San Francisco). It appears that it just hasn’t been rolled out in Seattle.

  • Thomas Franklin

    Wish this site had the ratings too: http://msg150.com/

  • sarahschacht

    In (quick) response to a couple points:

    -King County, so far, has declined to post in a standardized format, like the LIVES format or an “A,B,C” system. Their current scoring would be likely too difficult for apps to use and too complex for quick interpretation.

    -Help has 5 cities rolling out scores in their service this year, King County could join if their ratings were simplified. They already have open data through a Socrata open data portal.

    -In many ways, this is about not just changing the technology, but also changing the culture within King County Public Health–particularly in offices that manage data and set standards for formatting inspection ratings.

    Happy to answer questions. You can sign the petition at http://bit.ly/eatsafekc and you can find out more about me, and my work in open government, here: http://smore.com/kfc0

    Thanks!

  • Thomas R.

    There’s an organization called Code for America that is working with city and federal government to unlock the valuable they hold for public good:

    http://www.codeforamerica.org/about/

    They’ve already done several great projects by partnering entrepreneurs with city governments.

Job Listings on GeekWork