Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Nemesis App Spreads the Word on Spreading Restaurant Illness

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Nemesis App Spreads the Word on Spreading Restaurant Illness

Article excerpt

Sometimes picking a good restaurant is all about deciding where not to eat.

That's the premise of an alert system developed by researchers at the University of Rochester that tracks Twitter postings to flag restaurants where patrons are getting sick.

The idea is to give diners a more timely way to identify problem kitchens -- and avoid getting food poisoning -- than relying on annual health department inspection reports.

"You don't really know what's happening between inspections," said Adam Sadilek, who led the development of the system while a graduate student at the university and who is now a researcher at Google.

"Inspectors find no problems, and they leave," he said. "But let's say a cook comes in the next day and forgets to wash his hands and makes customers sick. This is an opportunity to identify the cook with the dirty hands."

The system that Mr. Sadilek and three colleagues created is called nEmesis. The name is a play on the word "emesis," the medical term for vomiting.

The researchers used machine learning and crowdsourcing techniques to analyze 3.8 million tweets from some 94,000 smartphone users over a four-month period in New York City.

GPS data allowed them to identify tweets from people in restaurants. The system then tracked those people's tweets for 72 hours, looking for key words indicating symptoms of food poisoning such as "tummy ache," "throw up," "Mylanta" and "Pepto Bismol." The system was "trained" so that irrelevant tweets, such as "I'm sick of school," were ignored.

Individually, the tweets were unreliable, but together they were revealing, said Henry Kautz, chair of the university's computer science department and nEmesis collaborator.

In other words, he said, "a seemingly random collection of online rants becomes an actionable alert."

The researchers identified roughly 23,000 restaurant visitors and found 480 reports of likely food poisoning. They then ranked the restaurants, giving them a "health score" based on the incidence of people becoming ill after eating there.

Their research paper, "nEmesis: Which Restaurants Should You Avoid Today?" will be presented at the Conference on Human Computation and Crowdsourcing in Palm Springs, Calif. …

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