DOWNTOWN — While tweeting about your gastrointestinal distress from last night's burrito seems a little ... gross, you could actually be doing a public service.
For the last year, city workers with the Department of Public Health have been combing Twitter to track food-borne illness in the city — and it's helped launch 174 investigations into questionable eateries and food products.
Foodborne Chicago uses an automated system to review local tweets for food poisoning symptoms. City workers sort the tweets to determine which Twitter users should receive a message prompting them to file a quick online report, which could lead to an inspection.
Since debuting on March 23 of last year, the system has identified 2,664 tweets that seemed to suggest some sort of food-borne illness in the city. Department workers have sent 288 replies, which resulted in 236 reports.
"We knew that there are a certain number of food-borne outbreaks every year," said department spokesman Brian Richardson. "A lot of those don't even get reported to us."
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 45 percent of food-borne illnesses go unreported.
"This is a way we can leverage that information that's out there and use that to help improve the food safety in the city," Richardson said.
Dr. Robert Brackett, director of the Illinois Institute of Technology's Institute for Food Safety and Health, said the Centers for Disease Control had a similar in-house system of tracking and interlocking disparate disease reports from state to state, but this takes that notion to a public forum.
"Twitter could do that same sort of thing and help identify" potential outbreaks, Brackett said. "So, yeah, I think it could be helpful. The one limitation it has right now is that it has sort of a biased demographic," largely made up of young adults. But, then again, he said, young people are more likely to write off an incident as a bad night and not file a health report at all.
People experiencing symptoms of food poisoning may have little to nothing in common — aside from the sudden illness. Culling Twitter for clues seeks to establish those key intersection points, and Richardson said, speeds the response time, which can be critical in pinpointing the source of the problem.
"Traditionally, when it comes to food poisoning we wait for individuals or restaurants to come to us and say, 'Hey, we have this issue,' " Richardson said, usually through 311 calls. "Residents really appreciate that we're reaching out to them and that there is an opportunity for them to report issues.
"What's most remarkable to me is how much more quickly this can happen," he added. "People are more likely to share what's going on through Twitter than through 311."
The department fielded 1,859 complaints on food-borne illness last year, which produced 1,560 inspections. According to the city, Foodborne Chicago generated "an additional 150 restaurant and food-service inspections," independent of those generated by 311 calls, and prompted 174 investigations for the year since it was launched.
Richardson said about 30 to 40 percent of investigations "will result in a serious or critical violation. With Foodborne Chicago complaints, the inspections are occurring sooner, meaning fewer days from the date of illness to the date of inspection."
And the greater likelihood of stemming a serious outbreak and narrowing contagion.
Restaurants were wary, but receptive to the concept.
"The Illinois Restaurant Association is supportive of the Chicago Department of Public Health's commitment to food safety in restaurants," said Sam Toia, the association's president.
"As with any social channel, the organization strongly encourages the CDPH to be as vigilant as possible when it comes to assessing the validity of claims submitted via this public forum. Each submission should be subject to the vigorous measures involved with any other channel of reporting to prevent any fraudulent or erroneous cases involving this sensitive matter," he added.
The idea for Foodborne Chicago came from Dr. Bechara Choucair, the city' scommissioner of public health. He found himself trying to track Chicago food-poisoning reports on Twitter through HootSuite. Choucair took the idea to the Smart Chicago Collaborative, which was able to come up with a code to sift through tweets posted in Chicago and pull out ones with some sort of reference to food poisoning.
It takes real humans to discard references to, say, Michael Jordan's stomach-flu game or disparaging remarks about sliders to leave only complaints that seem legitimate. In that case, the tweeter is then sent a message asking if she wants to file a complaint with Foodborne Chicago.
The public nature of Twitter makes it more adaptable to this sorting process, Richardson said, and it's unlikely the app could expand to take in Facebook.
"There's not a mechanism is some other social networks to go in and see what people are saying because they're private," he added.
"It is going to have some privacy issues," Brackett said. Given the government's access to information, it could potentially chart purchases of stomach medication and, say, cross-reference those to a restaurant or store where other customers also bought such medication a short time after a visit. Yet as long as it's just done by aggregation, he added, and not mining personal information, it could provide a benefit to public health.