Chicago’s Data-Powered Recipe for Food Safety

By Stephen Goldsmith • May 21, 2015

This post originally appeared on Stephen Goldsmith's Better Faster Cheaper blog on

Government's traditional approach to so many of its regulatory activities has been an inefficient and expensive one that frustrates both public employees and citizens: piling up mountains of rules and hierarchies of bureaucracy in an effort to make sure that every situation was treated exactly alike, no matter whether it was dealing with a good actor or a bad actor.

A breakthrough of enormous importance has now emerged from Chicago, a city that continues to set the standard for others by using data to improve government.

A breakthrough of enormous importance has now emerged from Chicago, a city that continues to set the standard for others by using data to improve government. The city is leading the way in harnessing advanced data analytics to improve public health, with high-level leadership from the mayor and day-to-day leadership from the talented pair of Chief Information Officer Brenna Berman and Chief Data Officer Tom Schenk.

In a recently completed pilot program, the city used analytics to improve the process by which health inspectors identify "critical violations" in food establishments, usually related to improper food temperature. Here's how it worked: The city processed relevant data to identify predicting variables associated with violations, developed a model, ran a simulation and then used this forecast to allocate inspections in a way that prioritized likely violators. This data-optimized trial method sped up the process of identifying critical violations by seven days — meaning that restaurant patrons are that much less likely to contract a foodborne illness.

This restaurant inspections pilot is part of a broader data analytics program in the city. In 2013, Chicago was one of five winners of Bloomberg Philanthropies' inaugural Mayors Challenge, a competition that encourages cities to generate innovative ideas to solve major problems and improve city life, and which have the potential to spread to other cities. Chicago received $1 million to construct its SmartData predictive analytics operational platform.

Chicago's success in the food inspections pilot holds great promise for cities across the country to change the way they regulate and ensure public health and safety. Here are few of the most valuable takeaways from Chicago's pilot — essential elements for getting the most out of any data analytics initiative:

Harness open data in creative ways: The days are long past when a city could be viewed as a leader in the open-data movement by simply publishing datasets to increase transparency. To serve citizens, cities must leverage the data they publish online to solve public problems. Chicago's open data portal proved pivotal to the food inspections initiative, offering a data source that was accessible by all parties working on the project.

Think horizontally: Traditional approaches to promote public health are typically confined to a single city department. Yet priorities for health and safety can be much more accurately set by mining and analyzing information from across a broad spectrum of sources.

Embrace non-traditional partnerships: In today's resource strapped environment, cities can get more for less by working with partners in academia, the nonprofit world or the private sector. Chicago exemplified this best practice by partnering with a local nonprofit organization, the Civic Consulting Alliance, and with Allstate Insurance, leveraging the talent of the corporation's data science team.

This pilot is an important step forward in learning to use data to transform the way government operates, making it far more responsive and efficient. Chicago has published the code for this initiative on GitHub and plans to do the same for future pilots in other areas of civic concern through the SmartData platform. That means that other cities will be able to take advantage of this work, helping to create an environment for data-powered innovation.

About the Author

Stephen Goldsmith 

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His latest book is Growing Fairly: How to Build Opportunity and Equity in Workforce Development.

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