“If Las Vegas has a
outbreak, it can
—Lauren DiPrete, Southern Nevada
Health District, Las Vegas, Nevada,
tourist destinations like the U.S. city of Las Vegas, which welcomed 42 million
tourists in 2015.
“If Las Vegas has a foodborne illness outbreak, it can drastically affect our
economy,” says Lauren DiPrete, senior environmental health specialist, Southern Nevada Health District, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA.
The good news is that such events are entirely preventable, she says. The challenge facing food inspectors is knowing exactly which restaurants are serving
tainted food—and shutting them down as quickly as possible. In 2015, the Southern
Nevada Health District carried out a three-month pilot project to find out if social
media could be harnessed to identify and inspect offending restaurants.
Developed by researchers at the University of Rochester, Rochester, New
York, USA, the nEmesis app scans Twitter to identify tweets in which people
complain about being sick. The app also has a geolocation component: If a person tweets from a restaurant, the app then follows that person’s tweets for two
weeks to flag any complaints of sickness. Armed with that data, the project team
sent food inspectors to seemingly problematic restaurants and also to control
restaurants that weren’t flagged by the software.
The nEmesis-flagged restaurants were more likely than controls to get a “C
downgrade” score from inspectors. A grade worse than that would close a restaurant down.
The team did see room for improvements in the app, though. For example,
the language model will be updated to be able to pick up more subtle cues of
food poisoning. The developer also will incorporate social media inputs other
But overall, the pilot delivered clear benefits to the organization and helped
fulfill its mission to protect public health.
“A lot of food-related illness goes underreported or unreported, so this
software helps us find that information and adapt to the community,” Ms.
DiPrete says. “The community is talking online, so we should be able to
listen online.” PM
Outdoor dining at
a restaurant in Las
Vegas, Nevada, USA