Boston’s Lake Wobegon restaurant ratings
We’re living in the age of data and metrics. Baseball now runs on them. Political campaigns have mastered the art of microtargeting voters based on preferences scraped from various consumer databases.
Government is getting in on the act, too, making what are largely admirable efforts to measure and make available data that can inform decision-making by citizens, whether on schools, crime hot spots — and now even where to grab a burger and a beer.
Following the lead of New York and several other cities, Boston has begun grading restaurants on their food-safety practices. The results are either highly reassuring, or skewed to the point of being meaningless.
The Globe reports that almost every restaurant was able to up its grade to an A after one or two follow-up visits. Last year, the paper analyzed grades from a 2015 trial run of the system, and reported that more than one third of restaurants inspected then would have earned the equivalent of a C on an initial visit.
The city’s inspectional services chief, William Christopher, says he’s not surprised at the big jump in grades, which he says is the result of restaurants improving their practices after city inspectors worked to educate them about the new system.
But it is reasonable to think that virtually every restaurant in Boston is a paragon of purity when it comes to food safety practices?
When New York City rolled out its rating system for restaurants in 2010, there was evidence pointing toward grade inflation — and that was based on a distribution of scores that had just 56 percent of restaurants earning an A. Thirty-one percent earned a B, and 12 percent got a C.
An analysis at the time showed that an inordinate number of restaurants were earning scores that put them just over the line that earned an A rather than a B. “Closer inspection of underlying data reveals a suspicious distribution of restaurants near the cut-off point between an A and a B,” reported FiveThirtyEight, then based at The New York Times.
This 2014 analysis plotted the same problem with New York’s grades.
If there is reason to be skeptical of New York’s grades, where just over half of restaurants earned an A, perhaps a further scrub of Boston’s system, where nearly every restaurant earns the top mark, is in order.
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