This post was written more than four years ago. The world changes fast, and the information, conclusions, or attributions may or may not still be accurate. Check the sources and links, and email me if you have any questions.

Update: The City of Minneapolis has stopped providing restaurant health inspection data, and I didn’t want old and corrected violations keeping people away from restaurants, so I took MplsHealth down. However, the City has promised that the data will be available in their open data portal by the end of 2013.

Update: It’s now the end of 2014 and the City’s promise to put this information online hasn’t been met.

Update: It’s not the end of 2015, and yet again, this data is still not online.


 

In New York, every restaurant is required to post their health rating on their window — you feel comforted when you see an ‘A’ rating, and nervous when you see a ‘D.’ In San Francisco, percentage scores demonstrate a restaurant’s violations relative to other businesses. In Minneapolis, there’s no such requirement. Even worse, out of the largest 50 cities in the United States, Minneapolis is the only one that doesn’t have any food inspection data online.

Many cities are embracing the concept of open data — that is, opening streams of data maintained by municipal government to civic-minded developers so that they can build apps to spread information and solve problems. Transit agencies do this all the time, which is why the App Store is filled with numerous fantastic apps to help you navigate around town. Highway agencies share traffic sensor data, which enables companies like Google to show you real-time traffic estimates. The FEC shares political campaign contribution data, which enables journalists to investigate how candidates are funded.

Last month, in response to the City of Chicago releasing a data feed of every vehicle that gets towed, I built an app that sends you a text message if your car gets towed, telling you where the impound lot is, and the phone number to reach a human.

So, I wanted to fix this problem where residents in Minneapolis aren’t able to lookup restaurant public health inspection results and food code violations. The City said that they wanted to do it, but due to technical limitations it wasn’t an immediate option. But, they weren’t willing to release the data either. In fact, they wanted to charge me money for it! Here I want to solve a problem as a public service, where I’m not going to make a dime but instead will solely be donating my time to a cause — and they want to charge me for the data!

I have a lot of respect for the work that the health inspectors do, and it was a shame that residents couldn’t access this data — data that is so critical to public health and safety.

So, I sent a government data request under the state’s version of the Freedom of Information Act, requesting to inspect the full and complete database of food establishment code violations. After about five months of back-and-forth, I got the dataset on Monday morning. By Tuesday morning, I put all the data online for anyone to search for their favorite restaurants. The website isn’t perfect, but it works and it took all of a couple hours. I have plans to add mapping functionality, top violation lists, and better search capabilities in the near future.

This is the power of open data. Big agencies move slowly, and there are civic-minded developers willing to fix problems. They don’t necessarily need money, they just need raw, usable data, and a bit of support and understanding from their government. We’re on the same team, please don’t make me fight for public data.

I’m happy to work with the City to build MplsHealth.com to be even better — I could only imagine that reincarnated as a mobile app, the ability for a restaurant visitor to report back health concerns to the city would be tremendously useful and a force multiplier for a department stretched thin. In that case, the City doesn’t need to bother with technical limitations and system updates — they just need to open an API endpoint to allow developers to send data back to the City.

And by the way, people love this data — just 48 hours after launch, and about 6,700 unique people have looked up about 24,000 restaurants.

Chicago is a shining example of open municipal data done right: in the Chicago Data Portal, every city license, building permit, 311 complaint, and even the City’s check register is all online for anyone to access, analyze, and build cool analytical tools on top of.

And to City Council Members, take a look at this San Diego City Council Member’s press release on open data, and this Los Angeles open data initiative feasibility report: