Magazine Article | November 1, 2000

Information Access... Quicker Than A New York Minute

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

As part of an e-government initiative, the New York City Department of Health created a Web site where consumers could access more than 19,000 restaurant reports. Within the first 48 hours, the site received more than 1 million visitors.

Integrated Solutions, November 2000

Undoubtedly, it's the biggest city in America. It's been labeled as having the worst traffic anywhere. And it's called "the city that never sleeps." Truly, New York is bustling. Its sidewalks are jammed. Its subways are packed. And its restaurants are saturated with customers. Coffee shops, sandwich bars, and five-star restaurants are all popular with "on-the-go" New Yorkers. If you're not convinced, here's some food for thought: the New York Times (May 18, 2000 issue) reported, "…city residents…treat jockeying for restaurant reservations like a blood sport…." has posted several restaurant-related articles, ranging anywhere from "10 Spots (to eat)…After Midnight" to "The Bargain Lunch Week." And the New York Post's Faye Penn once reported "…top restaurants are busier than ever with bonus babies and other big spenders who think nothing of dropping four figures on dinner." It's safe to say NYC residents take their dining seriously. Also, they're demanding in terms of restaurant quality. But where would someone, as busy as a New Yorker, find quick, up-to-date information regarding the quality of a particular restaurant? Ironically, the busy locals of the nation's largest city can now turn to the longtime branded, slowest moving entity in the country – the government.

Quickly Changing A Slow Reputation
The New York City Department of Health (NYC DOH) inspects the approximate 19,000 eating establishments in the city's five boroughs. The agency has 100 field employees who perform these inspections, four out of five working days each week. On the fifth day, employees come into the office and come into the office and submit hand-written inspection report forms. These forms are then key-entered into a legacy inspection database. This information, as you might have suspected, is public knowledge. By law, consumers can request inspection reports regarding any restaurant they choose. But until recently, they could only receive it at "government pace." In other words, retrieval was slow. Consumers would either phone in or fax a request. From there, customer service representatives would process the request, go to the hard copy files, look up the most recent inspection, make a copy, and mail it to the consumer. At best, it took several days for a consumer to receive the report. "How realistic is it for consumers – especially New Yorkers – to go through this process each time they want to try a new restaurant?" asked Ed Carubis, assistant commissioner for MIS (management information services) at the NYC DOH. "I'll tell you, it didn't happen very often."

A few years ago, the DOH decided to make a change. "The government has a real reputation of being bureaucratic, slow to respond, and unwilling to disclose public information," stated Carubis. "We wanted to change that." The DOH's MIS professionals started aggressively studying what they called, "e-government best practices." These are basically strategies in which the government can bring Web-based solutions to the public. The New York government started initiatives that would enable online access to birth certificates, death certificates, and burial permits. In conjunction with this, the NYC DOH investigated improving consumers' ability to access government inspection reports via the Internet. Carubis said the primary goal was to reduce illnesses that are attributed to food. "In reality, what people call 24-hour viruses…," he explained, "those are typically food related."

Two Disparate Platforms, One Extraction Obstacle
In October of 1998, an informal task force was formed to address system requirements. The team consisted of DOH staff and members of the New York State Restaurant Association, who quickly agreed to an online approach. DOH MIS employees were then charged with developing the system – which would later be called the Restaurant Inspection, Recording & Reporting System (RIRRS). "Clearly, the Web was an ideal medium for getting inspection reports to consumers," explained Carubis. "But, it was not immediately obvious how the information architecture should be established."

The DOH had two concerns. One, it runs management reporting on disparate platforms. While the agency does control inspection information internally, the information that it uses for these inspections comes from a different platform. The New York City Licensing Center, managed by the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), handles restaurant licenses. The DCA also handles all relevant information, such as location, telephone number, and type of establishment. For example, to open a restaurant, you must first go to the Licensing Center and fill out an application. The DCA enters the application information into a system called CAMIS (city agency management information system). That application information is then transferred, via an EDA middleware tool from New York City's Information Builders, Inc. (IBI), to the DOH legacy system. There the data is used in scheduling preapproval inspections.

The DOH was also concerned with how it would extract the information. "Traditionally, PCs that were connected to the Web had difficulty extracting information from legacy systems," illustrated Carubis. "Until recently, providing access to legacy databases (through a Web browser) was virtually unheard of." The DOH's legacy system consists of a Focus database – also from IBI.

Proposals, Prototypes, And One Familiar Vendor
Naturally, as the DOH contemplated developing RIRRS, it again turned to IBI. IBI already held a government contract with New York City and was familiar with the current inspection system at the DOH. Key users, technical staff, and an IBI team sat down and mapped out the look and feel of the Web site. IBI then came back to the DOH with a proposal for development, which included its WebFOCUS software. WebFOCUS is a suite of business intelligence tools designed to help users build and deploy Web reporting and transactional systems over the Internet. The DOH approved the proposal, and IBI put together a series of prototypes. The DOH then decided to use a third-party hosting vendor, called Applied Theory. "We made a decision as an agency that we are not prepared to support that kind of 24/7 Web application," added Carubis. The Web site also integrates a mapping feature (developed by Magellan Corp.) that allows users to pinpoint the location of any restaurant in the city.

Gathering Data And Delivering Reports
While on the site (located at, users can look up any licensed eating establishment in New York. First, a user must select a borough. Let's say the Bronx. Then, by clicking on the map (or typing in a zip code), they can choose from a list of different restaurants in that area. "The mapping application gave us the ability to create layers," said Carubis. "When users click on an area of the map, they are essentially clicking on a specific zip code range." For example, if the user clicks on Van Cortlands Park (on the map of the Bronx), RIRRS zooms in on that community, gathers the zip codes, and displays a list of restaurants in that area. The user can then scroll through the list and select any particular establishment. Meanwhile, Information Builders' EDA middleware tool is used to access any updates to restaurant licensing information. This information is extracted from the Adabas database – the CAMIS running on an IBM mainframe system. It then brings these changes into the operational inspection system on the RS/6000. Information from both systems is sent to a Microsoft SQL Server data mart residing on a Windows NT server. WebFOCUS runs on the same server. When a user requests restaurant inspection information, the request is sent to a Web Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) application, which forwards the request to WebFOCUS. WebFOCUS then gathers the selected data from the data mart, generates the report, and passes it back to the IIS server, which delivers the report to the user's browser.

The inspection reports include detailed information on the last inspection and any violations cited. Examples of some violations include: hot food not held at or above 140° F; food worker does not use a proper utensil to eliminate bare hand contact with food; or vermin or other live animal present in food storage, preparation, or service area. (Before dropping four figures on supper, this might be useful knowledge.) The site will even report if the DOH closed the establishment. On the other hand, a clean report would read: at the time of inspection, no violations were found that presented a threat to public health, or were related directly to factors leading to foodborne illness. "Users can call up the latest DOH inspection at a particular establishment," Carubis explained. "This will give them a good idea of its reputation for health and sanitation."

Making Improvements On Already "Healthy Traffic"
In May of 2000, the DOH went live with the site. Benchmarking anticipated approximately 7,000 hits an hour. However, within the first 48 hours, the site received 1 million hits – more than 40,000 an hour. "Then the news and media attention it received, drove even more visitors," said Carubis. After a few days things slowed down, but the site is currently reporting approximately 25,000 hits per day. "It's been healthy traffic," Carubis added. He also noted that the average user session is almost 10 minutes and that the average user is looking at 20 to 25 restaurants per visit. If restaurants should get "perfect inspections" it could work to their advantage. "In the Web site world, a 10-minute customer contact time is tremendous."

Overall, the public, as well as the New York Restaurant Association seem to be pleased with the site. However, the DOH is still looking for improvements. "We're in the process of implementing a mobile application for field inspectors," explained Carubis. Currently, the inspection database at the DOH is only updated once a week, when field employees come into the office. With a mobile application, the inspectors could update information quicker, and the public could have access to reports quicker…quite possibly, quicker than a New York minute.

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