With the help of a professor from University of California, Los Angeles, members of the university community have created the largest food safety inspection database in the nation.
Ben Bederson, a computer science professor at this university and one of the database’s creators, said the university-led online database gathers information about food safety inspections from local government websites using data robots, and then aggregates it in one spot.
“The information is public, so it is pretty interesting to see how people’s favorite restaurants are doing on their inspections,” Bederson said.
Funded by a $400,000 grant from the Sloan Foundation, the database has information compiled from 87 jurisdictions across 34 states, including 895,201 establishments, 6.8 million inspection records and 18 million violations, said Ginger Jin, a university economics professor who helped create the database.
The database is available to anyone interested by visiting InspectionRepo.com, where one can search based on establishment, city, state or food safety violation to get detailed information about various inspections. This database could potentially make people less susceptible to food poisoning as well as more aware of restaurant dangers, Bederson said.
Along with Bederson and Jin, Phillip Leslie, a UCLA business management professor, Alexander Quinn, a 2014 university alumnus with a computer science doctorate, and Ben Zou, an economics doctoral candidate at this university, created the database. This university has played a pivotal role in this project, but the team of people behind the database worked well together, Jin said.
“I have been a long-time collaborator with [Leslie]; our 15-year-long research on retail food safety allows us to see the value of making better use of public data from local governments,” Jin said.
Leslie said that while putting together the database, the group asked itself how restaurants and health groups can utilize these data in a meaningful way to make them more efficient.
Moving forward, the team intends to successfully transition from just the database into a fully functioning company.
“Upon completion, the three of us agreed that the best way to make the database sustainable was to create a company, so together we founded Hazel Analytics,” Leslie said, referencing to the recently created data analytics company. “The three of us have been working closely on this initiative for about five years now.”
Leslie said though there have been technical challenges while building the database, the general process of compiling information has been challenging as a whole.
“The journey of going from a research project to a company, with partners, employees and processes has been a hard and super-engaging challenge,” Leslie said. “Creating a startup in a way that everyone is aligned around and being able to maintain great relationships with your co-founders is a delicate process.”
Leslie added that although business obstacles might lie ahead, he believes the team can have a lasting impact on food safety data analytics.
“For restaurant chains with literally thousands of units across many jurisdictions, this opens a whole new approach to data-driven food safety and regulatory compliance,” he said.
The process of creating the database has not been easy, Jin said, and there is still more work that needs to be done to make the database work successfully.
“There have been challenges along the way, but we have a great interdisciplinary team to meet the challenges,” Jin said. “Looking forward, we are working hard to engage specific clients and address their specific needs from this database. I am confident that we will be able to unlock more value of the database for regulators, the retail food industry, as well as their customers.”
CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated the project was funded by a $100,000 grant from the Sloan Foundation. The grant was $400,000. This article has been updated.