Chicago mining Twitter to pinpoint food poisoning at restaurants

By Aditi Pai

FoodBorne ChicagoChicago's Department of Public Health (CDPH) has conducted more than 150 restaurant and food service inspections in the past year that may not have otherwise happened as a result of its new program, called Foodborne Chicago, which uses Twitter to search for people who tweeted about getting food poisoning.

Of the food service inspections conducted, an article published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) explained, the CDPH conducted 133 unannounced health inspections. Twenty one restaurants failed the inspections and the restaurants were shut down, while 33 restaurants passed with conditions, meaning there still were serious or critical violations that the health inspectors identified. 

Foodborne Chicago staff members screened tweets for the term "food poisoning" and then reviewed each individual tweet to see if it included other terms that point to a food-borne illness, like stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting. From there, staff members tweeted back at people, prompting them to visit Foodborne Chicago's website to complete a form that asks what restaurant they visited, what the address was, what happened, and when this event took place.

Between March 2013 and January 2014, Foodborne Chicago identified 2,241 tweets that included the word "food poisoning". Of these tweets, 270 included specific details about the food poisoning and of the 270, eight mentioned a trip to a physician or hospital emergency department.

“This proves how new technologies can help solve even the oldest of problems,” CDPH Commissioner Dr. Bechara Choucair said in an April statement. “Thanks to Foodborne Chicago, we now have the capability to identify food-borne illness that may not otherwise have been reported. Foodborne Chicago also gives us the capability to hear about potential foodborne outbreaks earlier, enabling our team to respond more quickly and prevent more people from becoming ill.”