If you’ve had the misfortune of getting food poisoning, you don’t soon forget it. The good news is that epidemiologists, scientists that study diseases, are working on how to find sources of food-borne illnesses faster, and the key may be your Google search history.
In a study published Oct. 6 in the journal NPJ Digital Medicine, Google researchers working in tandem with public health experts developed a model that identifies potentially unsafe restaurants. The model, called Foodborne IllNess DEtector in Real time, or FINDER, is a bit of a tortured acronym, but did remarkably well at its job: when deployed in Chicago and Las Vegas, FINDER was 3.1 times as likely to find unsafe restaurants compared to current health inspection methods, according to the study.
FINDER uses a combination of Google searches and their location information from all users who have enabled location services on their device. The model first found data from people who used search terms like “diarrhea” or other symptoms that might indicate food poisoning, and then looked at their location history to determine where they’d been recently. FINDER then flagged suspect locations, and health department officials would go conduct inspections at those businesses.
Of course, the model wasn’t perfect, but it did perform quite well. Researchers found that 52% of restaurants identified by FINDER were actually deemed unsafe upon inspection. For comparison, FINDER was more likely to find problematic restaurants than routine inspections—around 25% of restaurants undergoing routine inspections are deemed unsafe.
FINDER also seems to be more effective than customer complaints, which were only found to be accurate 39% of the time. That’s because people tend to assume that the last place they ate is what gave them food poisoning, the authors wrote. It turns out, that was only the case in 61% of the cases in the study’s survey.
The researchers said in their report that they hope that public health departments will use FINDER to more quickly identify food-borne illness threats in their communities. The next time you’re saddled with a bad case of food poisoning and you Google your symptoms, you might be able to find some solace in the possibility that your phone data could lead your public health department straight to the culprit.