New York City Health Department Taps Yelp to Help Find Foodborne Illness

NYC Health Department Uses Yelp to Help Find Foodborne Illness

New York City is sick of residents getting sick from its restaurants and eateries, so the city is going on the defense by going online. The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is working with Columbia University and online review platform Yelp to track down previously unreported cases of foodborne illness. Their plan of attack involves searching through Yelp reviews for descriptions and details of diners’ gastrointestinal distress. explained how social media is serving up a way to make it easy to find the queasy.

This social media effort was based on the Health Department’s prior success using Yelp to link a foodborne illness outbreak to a specific restaurant. Apparently, a number of diners had reported symptoms of sickness in the restaurant’s Yelp reviews. This provided the evidence that the city needed to trace the outbreak to that eatery.

With this recent effort, researchers from the Health Department and Columbia University have already identified 893 distressing Yelp reviews that signaled the need for investigation. Another frightening finding was that only 3% of these Yelp complaints had also been reported to the Health Department. This indicates that a large amount of foodborne illness is going unreported.

This savvy use of social media is proof of its enormous potential for sourcing and stopping disease outbreaks. Social media is an infinite stream of personal health and behavioral data. This makes it a goldmine of evidence for tracing and tracking disease patterns.

And this is just one example of how social media has been just what the doctor ordered. In 2013, Facebook users in Minnesota were able to identify tainted food as the source of a strep throat outbreak. And social media once again saved the day when the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health used social media comments to trace an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease to a party held at the Playboy mansion.

Even though social media may have begun as a fun and friendly pastime, it feels good to know that’s its now being used to help people feel better.

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