Chattanooga nonprofit policy research startup the Metro Ideas Project recently released a report that suggests using a data-driven approach for restaurant inspections could increase efficiencies in the process and save taxpayer money. 

Metro Ideas Project Executive Director Joda Thongnopnua said the report doesn't mean that the organization's leaders think Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department officials are currently doing a poor job inspecting the 1,600 restaurants in Hamilton County. 

What is open data?

"Open data is online information that is 'free to access, use, modify and share.' Open government data is 'produced or commissioned by government or government-controlled entities.'"

Source: Metro Ideas Project

"This is just one particular benefit we identified," he said. "It was a really poignant example of the benefits of open data."

The data-driven restaurant inspections report is part of a larger project called Open Hamilton, which is an open data tool kit that includes case studies about how other local governments have created open data policies, practical uses for open data and guidelines to help officials through the implementation process. 

The organization's mission is to bring data-driven solutions to complex problems that city leaders across the country face. The Metro Ideas Project also aims to "reduce systemic inequality and to inspire a better urban future."

How would a data-driven method help?
Currently, six health inspectors look at all the restaurants in the county, in addition to other facilities, such as pools and schools. 

They use a paper form and later manually enter the information into a computer to send it to the state, which is a requirement. 

The report suggests that state or Hamilton County leaders could digitize the process of collecting information, which would have multiple benefits. 

Check out tomorrow's related content 

Check back tomorrow to read an article about how local health inspections are done and what standards restaurants must meet.

Having the data open online would streamline work for inspectors and allow for easier comparisons of restaurants, neighborhoods and regions, according to the report. 

The method would also allow for more transparency; members of the public would be able to easily access scores online, and predictive analytics could help inspectors identify establishments that are more likely to have critical violations. Thongnopnua said this would help save time and money. 

The report highlights two communities—Montgomery County, Maryland, and Chicago, Illinois—whose leaders implemented this open data approach. According to the report, the health agencies in those areas have saved millions and identified more violations with this method. 

Montgomery County adopted the approach in 2015. Leaders worked with a private company to tailor software to meet their specific needs. 

"After two months, county inspectors identified 27 percent more violations," according to the report. "Officials there expected to save $2 million in personnel costs in the first year as a result."

What do health department leaders think?
Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department Director of Environmental Health Services Bonnie Deakins said the report outlines an interesting approach that officials have heard about. 

"We do want complete transparency," she said. "We want people to easily access the information we have."

Restaurant inspections are already available to the public if requested, and restaurants are required to post their scores for all to see, she said. 

And, although they don't use the open data approach, health department leaders already have processes to identify how likely it is that a restaurant will have a foodborne illness outbreak, she said. 

"We already have a process for tracking," Deakins said, adding that officials know even when a critical violation is repeated only once. 

If that happens, health department officials—who put a heavy emphasis on education and prevention—conduct training and work with restaurant staff to avoid repeating the offense. 

"We are not playing around with them," she said. "They have to make it right."

Local health department leaders also said that the other communities that have implemented the data-driven methods only did so a couple of years ago, so more time is needed to prove the benefits.  

Latest restaurant inspections

Click here for the most recent batch of health scores for local restaurants.  

"It's not that easy to use that type of data to forecast where foodborne illnesses are likely to [occur]," Deakins said. 

Still, she does see possible benefits of the approach.

"I think definitely it has potential," she said. "I think it has potential in letting the public see more in detail everything we do and everything the restaurants are doing."

Having an easier way to make the information digital would make suggestions from the Metro Ideas Project more feasible, Deakins said

And state leaders are working to make that happen. 

What is the state doing?
The state's environmental health division is working on an app that would allow inspectors to use iPads to document restaurant reports. 

"We want to get away from having field staff with paper and clipboards and having to manually enter the results of the inspections," state Director of Environmental Health Hugh Atkins said. 

State officials have 10 inspection programs the app could be used for, but they are going to start with the food inspections, which represent the largest set of facilities officials inspect. 

Officials are working on the finishing touches for the app, and they have identified about a dozen staff members across the state who can do a pilot test. 

The app could be launched statewide within the next month, Atkins said. 

It should increase efficiencies, help eliminate errors of input and bring the process into the 21st century, he also said. 

"It will eliminate the duality of coming in and manually entering [the information]," he said. "We'd rather [inspectors] be in the kitchen ... [We want to] free them up to spend more time working with establishments and consulting with them. Plus, it's 2017."

Disclaimer: Nooga.com's parent company is Lamp Post Group, which funds the Metro Ideas Project, but editorial decisions for this publication are made independently of Lamp Post Group and the Metro Ideas Project.