The Most Important Information Missing From Yelp

Crowdsourcing sites and local government should pool their data to better inform consumers.

Tourists ride bicycles past the Golden Gate Bridge.
Tourists ride bicycles past the Golden Gate Bridge on May 24, 2012 in San Francisco, California.

Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

This article arises from Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. On Sept. 6, Future Tense will join Aventura Capital Partners in Mexico City to host a conference on the “mobile city,” exploring how to make government information freely available to the public.

Having recently moved to a new city, I turn to Yelp whenever I am in need of a new restaurant, store, or even a refrigerator repairman. But as I learned the hard way, while Yelp can help me find the best calamari, it won’t tell me whether the restaurant has been spanked by the local health department.

Meanwhile, Yelp is filled with reviews that detail horrifying sanitation conditions at restaurants and bed-bug infestations at hotels. And yet these businesses’ doors remain open because the local health department isn’t using the more than 30 million user reviews on Yelp to target their inspections. A small sampling:

Bed Bugs (+not doing anything about it). STAY AWAY” —Yelp San Francisco

“2 people in my party had to go to the hospital because they got bit by bed bugs! ….. If you care about your health at all DO NOT STAY HERE! “—Yelp New York City

“Roach was crawling on the table right when they served the food. I jumped up and said, ‘ROACH’ and bunch of servers were trying to grab it. Needless to say, I was disgusted. They offer me free dinner and dessert for me and my friend but I never returned to that location.”—Yelp Los Angeles

Around the world, Yelp and local governments collect complementary data, intended to help would-be customers make decisions about where to spend their money and what to put in their stomachs. Yet that information isn’t available in a central location, and that is creating a knowledge gap for consumers. And customers aren’t the only ones who can benefit from better crunching of ratings and reviews information. Building partnerships with companies that generate user content is an easy way for our cities to get free feedback on their services. What if government took a user-centered design approach to service delivery? They could use feedback provided on thousands of sites to identify what citizens want from their cities—and where to begin fixing things.

Cities are beginning to embrace the idea of opening data to the public. Last month, four major cities—San Francisco, New York City, Chicago, and Seattle—put statistics on things like crime reports, restaurant ratings, bed bug complaints, and public restroom locations online at Yelp and Google still can’t use the data easily, but the move signals that the cities are interested in putting their information in the hands of those who can mold it.

The phrase “local government data” may make your eyes glaze, but those databases cover every municipal service we use daily. For example, a major frustration in urban centers is the amount of time spent trying to find a parking spot. To address this problem and improve air quality, San Francisco launched SFPark, a project that put sensors into 7,000 metered spaces and 12,250 in city garages. When one car leaves, the sensors communicate wirelessly with computers that in turn make the information available, in close to real-time. Now, imagine if Google or your car GPS used that data to show you where to find empty parking spots near an address you searched.

Or consider the Bike Accident Tracker, a tool created by the Bay Citizen that mapped all reported bicycling accidents in San Francisco over a five-year period. On the map, the intersection of Market and Castro was identified as a hot spot because it had five or more reported accidents. For cyclists, having access to this data is critical when planning routes to work or just getting from A to B in the city. Just this past April a cyclist hit and killed a pedestrian at that same intersection, according the San Francisco Chronicle. If accident data were integrated with a site like Google Maps, making the critical information more easily available, is it possible that the deadly accident at Market and Castro could have been avoided? I’m not sure, but it’s worth looking into.

But merely releasing data for the public to play with is not enough. To really make the investment in work, governments—state, local, and federal—need to make it easier for companies to use their numbers by creating data standards.

The technology needed to combine government data with websites and apps is already available. The reason we’re not seeing crime incidents mapped onto Google walking routes, available parking spots on GPS navigators, or health inspection reports on restaurant reviews is that our cities have not created a standard way of providing that information to companies like Google or Bing. If each city had a different measurement for a mile, how could anyone possibly abide by the speed limit when going from one city to the next? This is the same dilemma that software developers and policymakers face when trying to understand data from one city to the next. Unlike standard measurements, data can vary from city to city because our municipalities don’t always collect the same information, their databases do not use the same format, and they use different codes to categorize information.

If local governments are unable to collaborate effectively and build consensus on a standard, then companies need to step up to the plate. And this isn’t too much to ask. In 2005, Google did just that and partnered with Tri-Met, Portland’s transit agency, to develop the General Transit Feed Specification. The standard is currently used by about 500 cities that want their residents to have the option of using Google Transit Trip Planner. So it can be done, and done well. Why has it been seven years since we have seen a data standard produced from collaboration between local governments and business? I’m beginning to fully appreciate a Facebook post by The Information Diet author Clay Johnson on Aug. 28: “Inertia has just as much of a corrosive effect on large institutions as corruption does.”

As for restaurant inspections, a representative from Yelp told me that “active conversations” are in place to identify a possible solution. But this isn’t just about Yelp and the health department. Review sites big and small that host user opinions on nail salons, day care facilities, even online reviews of doctors—an idea that has never quite worked—could benefit from being tied in to local government. Because while the crowd may be wise, they don’t know what they don’t know.

Also in the Future Tense package on government and open data: what a burger mob tells us about the future of democracy; the fight to keep data free from political influence; and how Mexico is using open data to move beyond its authoritarian past.