Why mobile location is good for your health

Posted: December 10, 2010 in data-mining, Health, Journalism, Location, Mobile, real-time
Tags: , , , , ,

restaurant star ratings

There’s gold in data and a rich news vein to be mined around public health issues. As life increasingly migrates to mobile, the value of location-based services allied to instant, up-to-date information will only grow in importance.

Imagine being able to see at a glance the environmental health findings for a local restaurant, or takeaway, or gastro pub by simply pointing your mobile at it. Well, there’s already an app for that, called Scores on the Doors, which professes to be the UK’s largest source for official food hygiene scores.

You can take advantage of your smartphone’s location and compass capability to see star ratings of local premises as well as a key to the criteria of the health inspection. There are also SMS and WAP versions and the scheme has actually been running on the web for more than a couple of years, gaining momentum as more and more town halls sign up. As I write there are 124 contributing councils and almost 150,000 listed premises.

The app and site make use of local authority data gathered by environmental health inspectors as part of their statutory obligation to visit food businesses.

The frequency of future inspections depends on the risk rating of the premises after a visit, with the dual aim of improving standards while helping consumers make informed choices.

Where it falls down is both in the level of detail disclosed and the overall frequency of environmental health checks. There’s surely a story to be written about the mismatch in the number of health inspectors required to get round hundreds, if not thousands of outlets.

As the site points out, premises may only be inspected every 6-36 months as per the Food Standards Agency Code of Practice.

And because the results are a snapshot of a single day: “The score may not be representative of the overall, long-term food hygiene standards of the business and should not be relied upon as a guide to food safety or food quality.”

There are two sides to that coin as top chef Paul Rankin will testify.

In the US, Seattle and King County Public Health give a lot more detail about what their inspectors find:

“Food contact surfaces not maintained, clean, sanitized”
“Inadequate hand washing facilities”
Raw meats, poultry, aquatic foods not stored away from ready-to-eat foods”

It’s also possible to look over the record of an outlet across a number of years to see if there are repeated transgressions that might give pause for thought.

As impulse gives way to information and people start to vote with their feet we’ll either see a rise in food hygiene standards, or demands for more frequent inspections, or both. And at hyperlocal level that’s the kind of news that really matters.

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