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App mines data to rate Pittsburgh restaurant health

Aaron Aupperlee
| Monday, Oct. 26, 2015, 11:03 p.m.

Allegheny County restaurant owners successfully stopped proposals to post health and safety grades outside their businesses twice.

But they can't stop two guys in Georgia.

Chris Peoples, 31, and Jake Van Dyke, 30, both from Augusta, Ga., developed “What the Health,” an app that gives users access to restaurant inspection reports on their cellphones or tablets and assigns A, B, C, D or F grades. The app pulls violations from the reports and weights them, and deducts points out of 100 to determine the grade.

“We hope that they use it as a tool to make informed decisions about where they eat,” Peoples said. “We hope they don't get sick or eat some salad that's been in contact with raw chicken.”

The most recent attempt by the county health department to post grades outside restaurants failed in May when county council soundly rejected the plan. A similar proposal failed to pass the county Board of Health in 2012.

Both times, restaurant owners and the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association lobbied hard against the grades. They claimed the grades, based on annual Health Department health and safety inspections, wouldn't accurately reflect conditions in some restaurants and that incorrect low grades could cause good businesses to close.

“For my money, that's worse than the county doing it,” John Graf, owner of The Priory in the North Side and a former president of the Western Chapter of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, said about grades assigned by What the Health. “What qualifications do these people have to be assigning grades to the health and safety reports?”

County officials, including Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Health Department Director Dr. Karen Hacker, pushed the grades as a way to better inform consumers and strengthen the restaurant inspection program.

The grading proposal hasn't died completely. Health department inspectors use the grading criteria internally to assign A, B, and C grades to restaurants after inspections, said Jim Thompson, deputy director of environmental health. The internal grades help inspectors and supervisors determine whether fines or other enforcement actions are appropriate.

The health department doesn't endorse What the Health and doesn't know how the app uses its inspection reports or assigns grades, Thompson said.

“This is what we were trying to accomplish with our facility grading proposal,” Thompson said. “We like to see technology moving in that area, to push more information to the consumer to make decisions on restaurants.”

Thompson said the health department is going to redesign its green stickers and yellow placards to include a QR code (two-dimensional barcode) that will take anyone who scans it with a phone or tablet to the county's inspection report page for that restaurant.

There are other restaurant grading apps available for mobile phones. HDScores mines health department data. Apps such as Cleanly and Pizza Rat, launched after a video of a rat relentlessly dragging a piece of pizza through a New York City subway went viral, provide restaurant grades for large cities — but not Pittsburgh.

Peoples and Van Dyke started the What the Health app in Georgia about 16 months ago. They released the Pennsylvania version in July. For restaurants outside Allegheny County, the app pulls local or state inspection reports and assigns a grade. The Pennsylvania app has about 50 users a day, Van Dyke said.

The free app mines data from the county's inspection report website every three or four days and updates a restaurant's score and grade. It provides a similar list of violations and digital copies from inspections in other Pennsylvania counties, eight other states and Washington. Apple and Android versions are available.

“This information really isn't useful unless it's in the consumer's hands,” Van Dyke said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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