Gov 2.0: transparency is more than making data available

suspect KFCA friend of mine had a nasty case of food poisoning earlier this year. So nasty that Washington state health department folks were calling to check on her.

Update 1: Sarah Schacht (@sarahschacht) alerted me to this challenge when she was sick back in March. She did a lot of research on how other cities are making their inspection reports easier to use, even making it possible to integrate the information with Yelp reviews. KING5 did a story on her advocacy that runs at 10 and 11 pm on Thursday May 16. I’ll link to the story if KING5 puts the video online.

Update 2: Thanks to Dinegerous, I discovered that I should have searched for KFC and thus that the facility has a history (3 of the past 6 inspections) of failing to maintain hot holding temperatures for food.

That’s when I learned that King County restaurant inspection reports may be inaccessible to the average consumer because restaurant name and business name might not match. Guess which one you need to know to access the inspection report in King County? Then once you find it, can you decipher it?

Fast forward to this past weekend, when I found myself down for the count with fever and chills within four or so hours of eating at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kirkland, one that I patronize almost every time that I teach a motorcycle safety class. (Because I’m not a morning person, I choose not to get up early enough to make a lunch. Instead, I dash over for three fried chicken strips and a biscuit; I am, after all, a Georgia girl.)

That was Saturday evening. It’s Tuesday morning, and I’m better but still under the weather. According to the Mayo Clinic overview of food poisoning, my symptoms onset suggest Staphylococcus aureus which “[c]an be spread by hand contact, coughing and sneezing.” My doc says it can take a week to recover.

Today I finally had enough energy to look up the inspection reports for the restaurant.

They cannot be found by restaurant name (Kentucky Fried Chicken) and street address (11747 124th Ave NE) or street address alone. In both instances, my search was greeted with No restaurant inspection information matched the entered search criteria. Restaurant name only serves up one location in Federal Way.

Here’s what you see when you search for “Kentucky Fried Chicken” in the top five counties in Washington State by population: King (2,007,440) – Pierce (811,681) – Snohomish (733,036) – Spokane (475,735) – Clark (438,287).

The problem – challenge? – is that King County and Pierce County want us to search by “business name.” Quite often the business name is different from the restaurant name. Some businesses own several restaurants, for example.

But Snohomish, Spokane, and Clark? Those smaller counties — perhaps because their systems are newer? — allow us to search by the restaurant name.

King County: search for Kentucky Fried Chicken

Results: search for Kentucky Fried Chicken on King County Health Department site. I promise there is more than one KFC in King County.


Pierce County: search for Kentucky Fried Chicken

Pierce County Health Dept Results
Results: search for Kentucky Fried Chicken on Pierce County Health Department site. And I promise that there is a KFC in Pierce County.


Snohomish County: search for Kentucky Fried Chicken

Snohomish Health Department
Results: search for Kentucky Fried Chicken on Snohomish County Health Department site.


Spokane County: search for Kentucky Fried Chicken

Spokane Health Department
Results: search for Kentucky Fried Chicken on Spokane County Health Department site.


Clark County: search for Kentucky Fried Chicken

Clark County Public Health Dept
Results: search for Kentucky Fried Chicken on Clark County Health Department site.



Once you find a report, then what?

King and Pierce flunk on the “make it easy to find a report” score. But once you find a report, how easy is it to figure out how safe/clean/risky a restaurant might be?

On this measure, I give the highest marks to Spokane County, given the system currently in place in Washington. That is, there is no state  grading system, you know, like there is for our kids to move certain levels (No Child Left Behind) in school.

In Spokane:

  1. Search results are returned in a list with no copy WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS or in bold rainbow colors. In addition to the address and zip code, the results are alongside a Google map. If there are multiple locations, the map makes it easy to select the location you are interested in.
  2. When you click through to the restaurant, from the list or the map, you see a list of all reports in reverse chronological order. You can tell at a glance how many times a restaurant has needed a re-inspection (required after some not-explained threshold of failure).
  3. When you analyze any individual inspection, you can easily find out what is meant by any category, such as adequate hand washing facilities.
Spokane Health Department
Spokane County Health Department – Results For Kentucky Fried Chicken Search


King County shows points that have been deducted but there is no explanation for what is being assessed (#3 above). If you click the red or blue deduction, like you can in Spokane County, the entire scoring system will snap shut like an accordion. The only thing that might be “better” than Spokane’s summary is the column “Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory” — but you can easily deduce this in the Spokane view which just seems cleaner.

spokane results
Spokane County – Results detail
King County – results detail

Like King County, Pierce County uses ALL CAPS on its results pages. Basically, the programmers are taking raw data straight from the database and not converting it to something more readable (upper and lower case). Someone who is not a programmer – usually a user advocate or usability expert/consultant – will point out the need for this change which is usually straightforward for business names but not as much for people names, think MacDell. [It is easier to read lower case words because we read by recognizing word shape; upper case words all have the same shape.]

Although Clark County results are modeled after King County’s red-and-blue rainbow, I think that they are easier to read because there is limited use of bold type. And the table is treated like a table. Even if those are old-fashioned lines, they provide a scaffolding that reduces cognitive load.

Neither Clark nor Pierce help the consumer understand what the numbers or colors mean. King County recently added an explanatory statement to the search page and the bottom of the results page; this happened subsequent to my friend’s nasty experience in March.

Pierce County – Results details
Clark County – Results details

Snohomish County does not use the rainbow system. Neither do they elaborate on the violations to the extent of the other counties.

Snohomish – Results detail
Snohomish – Inspection Report



If you’re in charge of a site that’s delivering this sort of information to consumers, here are some tips:

  • Think like a consumer not a regulator.
    I’m pretty sure that’s the difference in “search by business name” and “search by establishment name” as well as “just put a word in” the search field and “use a wildcard” (seriously – what normal person knows what a wildcard is today?). Then there’s the “return a totally different set results if you just use ‘chicken'” in the search box. (King County didn’t return KFC in this scenario. You really can’t make this up.)
  • Oh. Make your search terms case-insensitive.
  • Make the results meaningful.
    Ask yourself: why are consumers going to be searching restaurant inspections? Either they are thinking of going to a new restaurant or they’ve gone to a restaurant and someone got sick. Or they know someone who got sick. In that scenario, what do they want to know? Give it to them in ENGLISH.
  • Accuracy may not mean understandable.
    When I saw that the restaurant my friend went to was cited over and over for “inadequate hand washing facilities” I was dumbfounded. “How,” I asked my husband, “could that be fixed in a week?” Well, if King County had provided a link to explain what the demerit meant, like Spokane County does, I would have seen that it can mean that there is no soap. Or paper towels.
  • Think simple, clean, minimal.
    That means a sparing use of bold, an allergy to ALL CAPS and fights-to-the-death over rainbow hues.
  • Provide enough info at the top level for us to make a quick assessment.
    Then for the small percentage of folks who want to deep dive, make it easy for us to dive. And then dive again. And again. But at the top level, we just want to know if the place is “safe” in the sense of “a reasonable risk.” Are you always having to do a re-inspection? Has there not been a need for a re-inspection in 2-3 years? Are there regular complaints? Have there never been complaints?
  • Develop a simple inspection scorecard that crosses jurisdictional (county) boundaries.
    Because we sure do. And so do business owners. Need some ideas? Check out New York City, which implemented “letter grades” in 2010.
  • Activate search on the “return” key. Don’t make us click the “search” button.
  • Finally, if the site isn’t mobile friendly, put a plan in place to get there within 12 months.

Screenshots: Kentucky Fried Chicken locations in greater Seattle per and Kentucky Fried Chicken locations in greater Tacoma per


By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

5 replies on “Gov 2.0: transparency is more than making data available”

Maybe not, Karen, based on NYC’s experience. Now that they have an A/B/C grading system, restaurants with “As” are putting the signs in their windows like a good housekeeping seal. (I didn’t catch the details – maybe the restaurants are required to do this, which would be awesome.)

But in the case of the local restaurant that triggered my initial interest in March – I think their behavior suggests something closer to your scenario. Not only does their business name not have any word in common with the restaurant name, it’s not the same business name as it was in March. Did they get sold? I don’t think so, as the old inspections did not disappear and the name of the restaurant didn’t change. But the only way to find it now is through the street address – a technique that was useless for me and my KFC.

That ALL CAPS stuff tells me that the state data is also coming out of an old database. Mainframe?

I’d bet that there are more restaurant chains pressuring the counties to keep this information obscure and inaccessible than there are consumers pressuring counties to make it easy to use.

I was using the Washington State Business License site the other day to look up some businesses and it’s pretty much a nightmare as well.

It’s very big on the ALL CAPS for search results. And if you search by last name of the business owner the search results make that name almost impossible to find.

While you’re there, be sure to take their horribly written user survey. Gaaaak.

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