This is a three-part project I submitted for my Independent Study on Computer-Assisted Reporting.
Part One: The Story
Dirty cutlery, unswept floors and greasy-looking employees are good clues that sanitary food preparation isn’t necessarily a restaurant’s No. 1 priority.
But when you don’t have to leave the house or even pick up the phone to get a late night snack, what do you really know about the kitchen your food is coming from?
There are over 700 restaurants in Gainesville and about 90 of these provide online ordering through Web sites like GatorFood.com and ChompMenus.com.
But these sites don’t publish state inspection reports.
According to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, the Division of Hotels and Restaurants does food service inspections 2-3 times a year. Violations can result in follow-up visits or temporary shut downs, depending on the severity.
The Division publishes inspection results on the Department of Business and Professional Regulation Web site and allows searches for specific businesses.
Roughly half of Gainesville’s eateries passed their last inspections with no warnings or follow-ups required. California Chicken Grill, Five Star Pizza, and Wing Zone, all of which allow online ordering, were among these.
In the past nine months, six restaurants were recommended for emergency closure: Wendy’s, Great Steak & Potatoe Co, Szechuan Panda, Sovereign Restaurant, China Super Buffet and Long John Silver’s. Of these, Szechuan Panda and China Super Buffet have online ordering.
China Super Buffet was shut down in July for 18 critical violations including roach activity and employees not washing their hands during food preparation. In October, the restaurant passed inspection with no violations.
Szechuan Panda was shut down nine times in 2007 with violations such as food stored on the floor, cigarette butts in the kitchen, and rodent activity. The most recent inspection, in March, resulted in a mandatory follow-up.
Forty-six restaurants were inspected within the last year after complaints were filed, among these were The Gelato Company and Las Margaritas. Both restaurants are listed on GatorFood.com and passed their inspections.
Alexis Antonacci, a representative from the Division of Hotels and Restaurants said the inspections are done randomly so the restaurants don’t know ahead of time.
Florida food inspections are not on a pass/fail system but rather require penalties based on the type and severity of violation.
There are 37 possible critical violations ranging from food protection to basic safety of the building.
Antonacci said that an administrative complaint of unacceptable critical violations can result in legal action against the restaurant.
“They can get a fine or continuing education or suspension,” Antonacci said. “Most often, it just requires a follow-up.”
104 restaurants in Gainesville received administrative complaints since June. Administrative complaints are logged by the inspectors for violations, while complaints are filed by consumers.
Of Szechuan Panda’s repeated closures she said that “repeated emergency closures are not typical, but inspectors are required to return within 24 hours to see if the problem has been eliminated.”
David Laiderman, a part-owner of ChompMenus, said that if restaurants are closed, then they are listed as closed for orders on the Web site.
“The restaurants call us and let us know when they’re closed,” he said.
Part Two: The Map
Part Three: How It Was Done
The first step for this assignment was to find a data set and story idea. After trying for several months to collect and study budget information for Florida state universities, this idea had to be set aside. Time elements, as well as the lack of organization of the data prevented this story from working out.
So I started looking at available data sets that would apply to Gainesville. I found that food inspection reports were available online and could be downloaded. The reports were provided as a .csv file with no column titles, so I had to find the key file and call up the Department of Business and Professional Regulation and have someone help me figure out how that whole thing worked. They were very kind and helpful, after a few false starts.
So at this point I had a huge file, with over 800 restaurants (some multiples with different locations) and what violations they got on various inspection dates.
Since my target publication is The Independent Florida Alligator, a college newspaper, I decided to narrow my field down a little. Gatorfood.com and Chompmenus.com allow online ordering for various restaurants. Which begs the question: If you never set foot in the restaurant, can you trust that your food is clean?
So I made a list of all the restaurants on those sites, and did searches for any other restaurants with Web sites for ordering online. This narrowed my data set to about 90 restaurants.
I sorted my data in several different ways to get a look at what restaurants were having inspection issues. I looked at critical and total number of violations, whether the reason for the inspection was routine or if a complaint had been filed, and what the result of the inspection was (did they have to shut down, or did they meet the standards?)
The big dataset I had didn’t provide too many details – just number of violations. But doing a search of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation Web site would pull up detailed reports with notes included by the inspectors.
I had to look up definitions for some of the terminology and called the Department of Business and Professional Regulation for clarification and interviews. I also called the contact numbers from the Web sites.
Finally, I decided what information I wanted to include in my story: a sort of overview of how restaurant inspections in Gainesville are going, highlighting any really crazy things and trying to keep the focus mainly on restaurants on my smaller list.
For the multimedia portion of the project I built a map that displays the restaurants and some basic information from the inspection reports. A script parses the .csv file and geocodes the restaurant addresses, then spits out a .xml file which generates the markers on the map.
Skills: Python, XML, Excel, Google Maps API, Writing, Reporting
Medium: Web, Text