Yelp Department

Does trying out a new restaurant give you butterflies?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Hopefully the butterflies mean excitement — not food poisoning! Health departments can’t monitor all eateries all the time. Who can we trust to keep restauranteurs in line?

Maybe Yelp can Help! Jorge Mejia of Indiana University and colleagues wondered if Yelp could get the dirt on diners. Mejia’s team analyzed New York City restaurant reviews from 2010 to 2016. Machine learning helped complete this daunting task.

Computer programs scoured reviews looking for patterns and counting food hygiene words. Examples? Phrases and words like “wiping nose,” “diarrhea” or “cockroach.” They compared patterns with Health Department grades.

Results? Reviews with more bad hygiene words matched those restaurants that were struggling to pass inspections. Yelpers caught them slipping into old ways even AFTER they were approved! Mejia’s team thinks health departments could expand their monitoring reach by including social media.

Next time you go to dinner, tell them you’re there from the Yelp Department.