One Year Later and Hundreds of Foodborne Illness Reports

This week marked one year since the launch of the Foodborne Chicago project and we’ve made a lot of progress in helping to make Chicago a healthier place.

Foodborne Chicago - Report incidents of food poisoning in Chicago

Since last year, the Foodborne app has helped initiate 174 food inspections throughout the city. The project also received a grant from the Knight Foundation’s Prototype Fund to expand our efforts.

Below is the latest press coverage we’ve received about the project.

Food-Poisoning Tracked Through Twitter With Foodborne Chicago App, DNAinfo Chicago

New Twitter App Tracks Foodborne Illness Outbreaks in Chicago, Food Poisoning Bulletin

Dr. Bechara Choucair joins Roe & Roeper, Roe & Roeper on WLS 890AM

Foodborne Chicago Covered in Food Poisoning Bulleting

Post by Dan O’Neil

Here’s some  more coverage today from the food safety industry: New Twitter App Tracks Foodborne Illness Outbreaks in Chicago. Snip:

Food Poisoning BulletinWe’ve told you before about apps that can help keep you safe from food poisoning, and how Twitter may be playing a role in foodborne illess outbreak investigations. Now a company in Chicago has created a new Twitter app called Foodborne Chicago. The project is part of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, an organization “devoted to improving lives in Chicago through technology.”

The app asks people who think they contracted food poisoning at a restaurant to fill out a form, which is sent to the Chicago Department of Public Health. The app also uses computer codes to search Twitter for anything relating to food poisoning in the Chicago area. People review the tweets and reply back to people who posted about them, asking them to fill out the web form. The form asks which restaurant the person believes is linked to the illness, what the person ate, and when they got sick.

Post by Dan O’Neil

Cory Nissen and Joe Olson in Food Safety News re: Foodborne Chicago

More than 70 complaints have been submitted since Foodborne Chicago’s April launch, but not all submissions were driven through Twitter interactions.

“Outside of Twitter, a lot of people are finding this form randomly as a way of logging an incident of food poisoning,” said Cory Nissen, one of the app’s developers.

Nissen and Joe Olson, another developer behind the project, emphasized that a receptive and open city health department is needed to get a project such as Foodborne Chicago off the ground.

Full story on @foodsafetynewsSocial Media Apps Use Twitter to Track Illness Outbreaks

Foodborne Chicago in the News

Post by Dan O’Neil

Here’s some coverage of the Foodborne Chicago project today.

The main story was on the front page of the Chicago Tribune: Food-poisoning tweets get city follow-up: Health authorities seek out sickened Chicagoans, ask them to report restaurants. It was a very complete story, with detailed custom graphics on the process we follow to manage incoming tweets:

tribune-article-1

tribune-article-2

tribune-article-3

The same story was used as the front page of the Red Eye in a package called “#DirtyDining: Trending Toxic:

#DirtyDining: Food-poisoning tweets get city follow-up Health authorities seek out sickened Chicagoans, ask them to report restaurants

trending-toxic

trending-toxic-page-2

Here’s the full story:

Food-poisoning tweets get just desserts
Health authorities seek out sickened Chicagoans, ask them to report restaurants

By Monica Eng, Chicago Tribune reporter
August 13, 2013

When Juan Anguiano fired off a tweet about a bout of food poisoning in April, he thought he might hear back from sympathetic friends or pick up a new follower.

“I wasn’t expecting the city of Chicago to tweet me and ask me to file a report,” said Anguiano, an editor for Univision.

Still, that’s pretty much what happened. Since April, an automated application has been searching Twitter for posts that include the words “food poisoning” by people who identify themselves as Chicagoans.

Several volunteers then contact some of those people and suggest they complete a form that goes to the Chicago Department of Public Health. “I actually filled it out and thought it was awesome,” Anguiano said.

The health department says more than 150 Chicagoans have been contacted since the initiative, called Foodborne Chicago, began. In its first month, reports triggered 33 restaurant inspections, some of which uncovered violations, officials said.

“We wanted to try to reach out to Chicagoans in many different ways, and we know that a lot of people are on Twitter,” said Health Commissioner Bechara Choucair. “If they are experiencing food-related illness, they won’t always pick up the phone and call us, but they will tweet it.”

But is combing Twitter for the words “food poisoning” really a useful way to crack down on dirty food service establishments? Although many people who become sick blame the last thing they ate, experts say that meal is often not the culprit.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, foodborne pathogens can trigger symptoms of illness a few minutes to several weeks after contaminated food is ingested, which makes it tricky to pinpoint the source of food poisoning.

Food safety attorney Bill Marler is well aware of the vastly different incubation periods for foodborne pathogens, but he thinks the idea still may end up being helpful — or, at least, not hurtful.

“If the health department is using it for people to say, ‘Hi, I suspect I just got sick from this restaurant’ or ‘I just went to this place and it’s just a mess,’ then I don’t see a problem with doing inspections based on that,” Marler said. “They should be doing inspections anyway. So it’s probably no more or less accurate to use inspections to respond to a consumer complaint, even if the consumer might be incorrect. They are either going to find a problem or not find it.”

Marler said he could see how restaurants might object, but the Illinois Restaurant Association said it had no complaints.

“There is nothing more important than food safety in our restaurants,” association President Sam Toia said in a statement.

Foodborne Chicago, which tweets as @foodbornechi, was developed by Smart Chicago Collaborative, which describes itself as “a civic organization devoted to improving lives in Chicago through technology” and counts the city of Chicago as a founding partner.

The app is billed as part of an ongoing effort by the health department to use technology to make its services more transparent and accessible to citizens. In the past couple of years, officials have placed all health department inspections online, nearly in real time, and posted progress on various health initiatives on a regular basis.

With the expansion of social media, complaints of suspected food poisoning, news of regional outbreaks and general whines about food service establishments have gained audiences well beyond their previous scope.

Marler noted that after a listeria outbreak in Canada a few years ago, researchers examined the number of people from the region who had searched online for the bacteria’s name. “Big data” may be useful “in tracking outbreaks when you can see that a lot of people are searching for the same help,” he said.

Some Chicago tweeters who heard from Foodborne Chicago said they thought twice about reporting their favorite restaurant but hoped doing so would protect other people and help identify larger outbreaks.

“Food poisoning can be kind of vague, so whether or not they use social media, it is going to be difficult to find claims that have provable grounds,” said Nicole Rohr, an interactive content producer at WYCC-Ch. 20 who got sick in May. “But it’s worth looking into, especially if there is an establishment where multiple people get sick. That’s when I think it can be really helpful.”

Marler agreed that explicit tweets with locations and symptoms could help connect the dots.

“I could see where I’m in the hospital and I ate at these three restaurants and then someone tweets that they ate at one of them and now they have bloody diarrhea, too,” he said. “You could see where that could generate the outlines of an outbreak. But it’s got to be used very wisely.”

Triathlete Myles Alexander, who tweeted about food poisoning that he suspected contracting at a favorite Italian restaurant, said he thought the new program might best be used to detect repeat offenders.

“If they get enough red flags about one specific restaurant, that can show that they need to pop on by and do another inspection,” said Alexander, who fell ill after eating fish soup.

Some of the tweets about food poisoning that are accessible through Foodborne Chicago’s Twitter feed call out restaurants by name. According to Marler, even if the information turns out to be inaccurate, a libel claim against the tweeter is unlikely to succeed.

“It’s complicated, but the short answer is that it has to be knowingly false,” Marler said. “The only time a customer would have a problem would be if they absolutely knew that the food was not the cause of their illness but they said it just to harm the restaurant.”

Commissioner Choucair said most of the people contacted through the program are “excited to know that we are listening.” He sees it as another way for government, citizens and technology to join forces to make Chicago a better place.

“We are always looking for new opportunities to leverage innovations to improve food safety,” he said, “but we need the help from Chicagoans.”

Even if that help is just sharing — or even over-sharing — about your tummy troubles on Twitter.

Copyright © 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC

The Minds Behind Foodborne Chicago

Post by Dan O’Neil 

Here’s a story in today’s Chicago Tribune about the Foodborne Chicago project (larger snip below). On the About page of the Foodborne Chicago website, we have a section called “Genesis”. It lists, in chronological order, the people who had something to do with this project. It was such a unique and long-time-in-coming collaboration, so we all wanted to make sure that we got the whole history down cold. Justin Bieber And Carly Rae Jepsen Perform At The MGM GrandWhat that page fails to do (and we’re going to fix that) is highlight the core team that brought this product to market: Joe Olson and Cory Nissen, who did all of the heavy lifting on the Twitter and classification side, and Scott Robbin, who customized the admin tool to meet our needs. Joe and Cory have been the shepherds of this entire project. They submitted their work to the recent Knight News Challenge for Open Gov Data and have been thought leaders on how to take this technology farther and farther. The idea of using the exhaust fumes of social media to power intelligence in separate systems is near-cliche at this point. But Cory and Joe have built a generic system that depends on humans to train the classification models. All of this means real impact, right now, not just mapping tweets and writing papers. Without these guys, we’d all be refreshing Tweetdeck and mentally pasrsing tweets about Justin Bieber’s tummy. Here’s copy/paste bios on Joe and Cory:

Joe Olson is a data architect from Chicago, Illinois. He is involved with several Chicago area startups, including AkoyaVGBio, and is a co-founder of Tracklytics, and can usually be found working out of 1871. Cory Nissen is a statistician at Akoya. Prior to Akoya, he spent time at Allstate Insurance doing market research, including social media text mining and survey analysis.

The other core technology person is Scott Robbin. Here’s him:

Scott Robbin is a web developer from Chicago, Illinois. He is the principal at Robbin & Co., a member of Weightshift, and a recent inductee to the Crain’s Chicago Business 40 Under 40, Class of 2012. Scott is an open government enthusiast, creator of SweepAround.Us and WasMyCarTowed.

I really like my job. I get to hang out with smart people who make real things that help real people. Here’s a video submitted about their work to the recent Knight News Challenge:

Here’s a snip from today’s story in the Tribune: Food-poisoning tweets get just desserts: Health authorities seek out sickened Chicagoans, ask them to report restaurants.

Foodborne Chicago, which tweets as @foodbornechi, was developed by Smart Chicago Collaborative, which describes itself as “a civic organization devoted to improving lives in Chicago through technology” and counts the city of Chicago as a founding partner. The app is billed as part of an ongoing effort by the health department to use technology to make its services more transparent and accessible to citizens. In the past couple of years, officials have placed all health department inspections online, nearly in real time, and posted progress on various health initiatives on a regular basis. With the expansion of social media, complaints of suspected food poisoning, news of regional outbreaks and general whines about food service establishments have gained audiences well beyond their previous scope.

Foodborne Chicago on WBEZ Chicago

Post by Dan O’Neil 

Yesterday morning I talked with Tony Sarabia of the WBEZ Morning Shift about Foodborne Chicago. Here’s the sound. Listen all the way to the end for a pretty wacky bumper tune.

Key points covered:

  • This site is not about making a cool app. It’s about making teeny tiny connections between the people who matter: residents of the City of Chicago and the municipal government that serves them
  • Chicago’s Open 311 system (funded and supported by Smart Chicago) provides the technological and conceptual basis for this site. Without the ability to write directly to the City’s 311 system, and thereby get into the Chicago Department of Public Health’s normal workflow for dealing with food safety, Foodborne Chicago wouldn’t exist
  • Twitter and other social media is fast becoming important in all sorts of human domains, including health. There are one million health tweets per day and users tweet symptoms 4 days before seeing a doctor. See more here in this presentation out of Johns Hopkins University: Social Media: New Data Source for Public Health

Foodborne Chicago - Report incidents of food poisoning in Chicago

Behind the Scenes: Foodborne Chicago

Earlier this month the Smart Chicago Collaborative, in partnership with local developers Cory Nissen, Joe Olson, and Scott Robbin, and the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH), launched Foodborne Chicago, an innovative application that trawls Twitter for mentions of food poisoning in Chicago, enabling a team of administrators to connect with affected people and encourage them to report details of their food poisoning to the CDPH.

The Foodborne Chicago application is a collection of different services that make up a complex workflow. This post explains the overall architecture of the application and the direction that development is headed.

Backend analysis

Foodborne searches Twitter for all tweets near Chicago containing the string “food poisoning”. The ingestion service consumes thousands of tweets, storing them in a large MongoDB instance. A collection of classification servers, running R, churn through the collected tweets, applying a series of filters. The tweets are classified using a model that was trained via supervised learning, which determines if the tweets are related to a food poisoning illness or not. The Twitter crawler, classification machines, and MongoDB instance are all virtual EC2 instances running on the Smart Chicago Collaborative Amazon Web Services account.

Here is a sample of actual tweets and the determination of the classifier:

food poisoning tweets:

  • Knocked down by food poisoning for the second day. Not a good way to start the week😦
  • Stomach flu/food poisoning is like eating gas station sushi without the joys of eating gas station sushi
  • I think I ate my food too quick, either that or I sense food poisoning
  • Food poisoning at the first chapter meeting. Awesome..
  • My stomach keeps making the weirdest noise. Possibly food poisoning from Golden Nugget!

not food poisoning tweets:

  • I read that over six million people will get food poisoning this year with 100,000 requiring hospitalization. This is entirely preventable.
  • It’s really hard to snack while watching Honey Boo Boo. It’s the second best diet to food poisoning.

The Foodborne web application, a standard Ruby on Rails application, runs on Heroku, and has a scheduled job that loads classified tweets from the MongoDB instance every few minutes. This administrative interface shows the admin team, a partnership between Smart Chicago and the CDPH, a list of previously classified food poisoning tweets. For each tweet, the application shows if the tweet has been replied to, and if not, a simple mechanism for sending an @-reply to the tweet. The reply can use one of a standard set of replies, or a custom message, depending on context.

Public interaction

When users respond to the Twitter @-reply, they fill out a simple food poisoning report form on Foodborne. This form is submitted to the City of Chicago via its Open311 interface. This submission is equivalent to the person calling Chicago 311 to report their food poisoning. The 311 software routes the submission to the Chicago Department of Public Health, where investigators review the submission and take action, including conducting inspections, based on the report.

Development roadmap

Foodborne has a number of exciting development goals ahead. The backend infrastructure, while adequate, can be optimized and made far more efficient. Joe and Cory are exploring how to use EC2 spot instances and queuing tools to perform the classification work when computing resources are less expensive. The administrative interface will be extended to show more information about suspected food poisoning tweets, including if a person has submitted a request to 311. Scott and Cory are also working on building a feedback loop to the classifier; eventually administrators will be able to flag tweets that are incorrectly classified as relating to food poisoning illness and the classifier model will then learn to ignore similar tweets in the future.

Foodborne is an exciting addition to the collection of applications hosted by the Smart Chicago Collaborative. We’re proud of the work the entire Foodborne team has done, and look forward to supporting future development. If you’re a developer working with open data in Chicago, you may qualify for free hosting, too!