Researchers develop food safety inspection database
- By Mark Pomerleau
- Apr 10, 2015
A group of researchers from the University of Maryland and UCLA have built the largest national database of food safety inspection information – a resource the creators say will allow businesses and consumers to better monitor and compare food safety practices.
Such data has historically been scattered across a hodgepodge of local and state databases, each containing manually collected and nonstandard data from local public health departments, which often take different approaches to conducting, coding and reporting inspection data. The new database relies on both data queries and software bots to scrape data from local government websites, and standardizes the information in a single repository -- making it much easier to identify trends and affect compliance.
“Building our system to reliably collect information from so many different jurisdictions was a formidable engineering challenge,” said Ben Bederson, UMD professor of computer science one of the database developers.
One aspect of that challenge was developing algorithms to normalize data across jurisdictions. For some web pages, the team had to write custom scrapers to get the data, and for others they had to interpret existing databases.
Another was keeping the information current. “Our data robots cover a large number of local jurisdictions across the United States, continuously detecting new data posted by each jurisdiction, and integrating them into a single, standardized and cumulative database,” Bederson said.
In addition, the researchers developed analytical tools to compare inspection outcomes across localities and states, and across chain and individual food outlets, such as restaurants, cafes, convenience stores, and grocery markets.
The work on the database has paid off, and not only for its users. The team formed a regulatory data analytics company, Hazel Analytics, which now produces a commercial grade restaurant inspection database and analytical services for the food service industry.
For non-commercial use, the database of retail food service inspections is publicly available at InspectionRepo.com at no cost.
Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.