People have been using Yelp to find hotels and restaurants for years. Now, they can make more informed decisions about hospitals, nursing homes and dialysis centers, too. As part of a new consumer protection initiative, government health data has become integrated into the Yelp review pages for all of these facilities.
To pull this off, Yelp is collaborating with the award-winning nonprofit news organization ProPublica to show you which health care facilities are safe, fast and well-run.
Yelp already had user reviews on all of these facilities, as well as huge amounts of data on which bike stores and bookshops and car-battery suppliers its users prefer. Now, ProPublica is providing Yelp with cleaned-up data originally released by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The data in question was already available as part of ProPublica's news apps, including its dialysis tracker, its nursing home inspector and its emergency room wait watcher. But this partnership will expose the data to a much bigger audience. According to Yelp itself, 83 million unique visitors per month use Yelp through their mobile devices.
What does ProPublica get in return for the partnership? Traffic to its news apps, for one thing -- if people click through to the apps, that is. More significantly, as pointed out by Harvard's Nieman Lab and the Columbia Journalism Review, ProPublica has also gained access to a huge, anonymized file of reviews that it will be able to analyze and use to find sources for its own reporting.
Yelp already has some experience displaying government data on its site. It's been working with a growing number of cities and counties to use open data about restaurant health scores, including San Francisco; Los Angeles; Louisville, Kentucky; Wake County, North Carolina; Orange County, North Carolina; Evanston, Illinois; Riverside, California; and Boulder, Colorado.
City health inspectors have been publishing reports online for years, and as more cities began to adopt Yelp's LIVES open data standard, those reports started showing up on a growing number of Yelp listings. That enabled consumers to see the hygiene records of restaurants right there at the point of decision, instead of having to do an additional search.
The biggest technical obstacle in this process has been matching the health records with the correct restaurants. Yelp hasn't pulled it off completely, but it has come close.
"The match rates for restaurants is more than 90 percent, so one would expect to see LIVES data on [the] overwhelming majority of restaurant pages of all those places," Luther Lowe, vice president for public policy at Yelp, told The Huffington Post.
As a result, a lot more people now see the history of restaurants with city and county health inspectors. Lowe estimated that about 13.7 million people nationwide live in the areas served by LIVES data, though it's not clear how many of them are Yelp users.
Despite what some headlines have implied, Yelp users won't have to "look up" hospital wait times, nursing home fines or post-dialysis readmission rates. That data will be available right there, embedded on pages like this Yelp listing for a nursing center in Huntington Beach, California.
Yelp is now working on integrating CMS data for about 4,600 hospitals, 15,000 nursing homes and 6,300 dialysis clinics around the U.S., using a combination of software and staff.
"It's not 100 percent match rate, but not unlike LIVES, we run a matching algorithm and roll out with ones where we have a high confidence [the] match is accurate," said Lowe. "Then over time human beings match the rest."
Yelp hasn't disclosed how much traffic its listings for hospitals, nursing homes and clinics receive monthly, but it's probably a lot more than what the raw data sets at healthdata.gov receive.
This new health data isn't perfect. It's published quarterly, for example, which means that some information may be outdated. But overall, the Yelp/ProPublica endeavor adds a backbone of reliable government ratings to a consumer website that has faced trust issues and Federal Trade Commission inquiries over how it can protect the integrity of the site from fake reviewers.
If there are issues with the data in question, Yelp will refer users to CMS, much as BrightScope refers financial advisers who raise data issues to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority or the Securities and Exchange Commission.
"We're continuing to add businesses and expect to continue improving data matching and have more available over the course of the coming weeks," Rachel Walker, a spokeswoman for Yelp, told HuffPost. "If a business believes the information displayed to be incorrect, they should contact CMS directly."
Here's the catch, though: Consumers have a different set of criteria for choosing a medical provider than they do for choosing a hospital, nursing home or dialysis center.
Access to data about an emergency room's slow wait times won't do someone much good if that emergency room is the only nearby option. And knowing that a given dialysis center is associated with high readmission rates doesn't necessarily help an elderly patient who has limited transportation options. If someone's in cardiac arrest or in critical condition after a car accident, they're not going to visit Yelp. But for someone using an ER like a health clinic, wait times are a consideration.
Still, adding cleaned-up government data about hospitals and nursing homes to Yelp pages will be great news for consumers. And it means that the Obama administration's open data efforts are continuing to bear fruit in the marketplace.
This is also a fantastic example of what my former publisher Tim O'Reilly once suggested as a guiding principle for democratizing government data: Don't make people find the data -- make the data find the people. If you want data to have an impact, make sure it gets to the right people at the right time -- that is, the point of decision-making about a good or service.