By Melissa Lind, contributing writer
Food safety inspection data has traditionally been difficult to aggregate as each regulating agency has compiled its own data in individual databases. While it is fairly simple to find publicly available inspection data on the USDA and FDA websites, local and state agency information hasn’t been so easy to find… until now.
Solving the problem of various food safety databases has been the work of a group of researchers at the University of Maryland and UCLA with the development of a new resource. The group has built a national database with compiled food safety inspection information, the largest of its kind. The creators hope that this new database will enable both businesses and consumers to monitor and compare food safety issues and practices across the nation.
The database uses a combination of software bots and traditional data queries to gather data from local governmental websites and standardize that data into a single, aggregated repository. In addition to limited public access, local and state agencies have taken different approaches to inspection report filing and data aggregation. Some agencies use manual systems and non-standard approaches to conduct, coding, and reporting of inspection data. This enables users to access the data without the need to decode or adapt reading to local standards making it easier to utilize the data to identify trends which may present a public hazard. Identified trends may then be used to eliminate hazards and increase compliance.
Ben Bederson, UMD Professor of Computer Science says that building the system was a “formidable engineering challenge” with the need to collect information from multiple jurisdictions. Part of the biggest challenge was in normalizing data across agencies. In some cases, custom scrapers had to be written to get reliable data from certain websites, and in others, existing databases had to be “interpreted.” The database covers hundreds of local jurisdictions across the nation and its data robots run continuously to detect new information as it is posted to be added to the standardized, cumulative database.
The researchers have also developed analytical tools which compare inspection outcomes across multiple channels. These tools analyze data from local and state agencies across food outlets, including chains and individual businesses. Non-commercial access and use of the database is available free at InspectionRepo.com.