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Researchers used computer analysis of Yelp to identify ten outbreaks of foodborne illness in New York City.

Mike Pomranz
January 12, 2018

When reading through Yelp, the crowdsourced site allows users to mark other people’s reviews as “useful,” “funny” and “cool.” However, a new study suggests that “kept me from getting sick” might be another sensible piece of feedback. A group of Columbia University researchers have been working on a way to use the site to help identify outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.

According to the paper, entitled “” and published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, the system “has been instrumental in the identification of 10 outbreaks and 8523 complaints of foodborne illness associated with New York City restaurants since July 2012.” The computer-based data analysis works by scanning the site for keywords in reviews like “vomit” and “food poisoning” with reviewers then sometimes being followed up on by investigators looking to obtain more details.

“Identifying foodborne illness outbreaks can be challenging because not all individuals with foodborne illness are tested, and therefore they’re not reported to health departments,” Thomas Effland, a Ph.D. computer science student and lead author of the study, said . “Additionally, individuals may not report suspected outbreaks to public health agencies.”

However, though Columbia University’s system can be an invaluable tool for public health officials, James E. Rogers, director of Food Safety Research and Testing at Consumer Reports, suggested that individuals should still be cautious about believing all claims of food poisoning on Yelp. “I would be wary of depending solely on user reviews from Yelp or other sites to steer me away from a restaurant,” he said. Beyond the fact that Yelp reviews aren’t beholden to the truth, a larger concern is that the symptoms of food poisoning can often start long after a meal has been eaten, often leading people to misattribute where the illness came from.

Still, even though as users, we should be skeptical of individual reviews, it’s good to know that someone is keeping an eye on Yelp reviews for food poisoning issues… at least in New York. Though other cities may benefit from this research soon: “We also intend to examine the performance of our system in locations outside of NYC,” the study states.

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