The Waffle House Index

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Waffle House announced it was closing hundreds of stores this week due to SARS-Cov-2 (a.k.a COVID-19). This move garnered quite a bit of media attention since former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate used the restaurant chain as both an indicator of the immediate and overall severity of a natural disaster. [He’s not the only one](https://www.ehstoday.com/emergency-management/article/21906815/what-do-waffles-have-to-do-with-risk-management. The original concept was pretty straightforward:

For example, if a Waffle House store is open and offering a full menu, the index is green. If it is open but serving from a limited menu, it’s yellow. When the location has been forced to close, the index is red. Because Waffle House is well prepared for disasters, Kouvelis said, it’s rare for the index to hit red. For example, the Joplin, Mo., Waffle House survived the tornado and remained open.
 
“They know immediately which stores are going to be affected and they call their employees to know who can show up and who cannot,” he said. “They have temporary warehouses where they can store food and most importantly, they know they can operate without a full menu. This is a great example of a company that has learned from the past and developed an excellent emergency plan.”

SARS-Cov-2 is not a tropical storm, so conditions are a bit different and a tad more complex when it comes to basing severity of this particular disaster (mostly caused by inept politicians across the globe), which gave me an idea for how to make the Waffle House Index a proper index, i.e. a _”statistical measure of change in a representative group of individual data points.”_.

In the case of an outbreak, rather than a simple green/yellow/red condition state, using the ratio of closed to open Waffle House locations as a numeric index — [0-1] — seems to make more sense since it may better help indicate:

  • when shelter-in-place became mandatory where a given restaurant is located
  • the severity of SARS-Cov-2-caused symptoms for a given location
  • disruptions in the supply chain for a given location due to SARS-Cov-2

I kinda desperately needed a covidistraction so I set out to see how hard it would be to build such an index metric.

Waffle House lets you find locations via a standard map/search interface. They provide lots of data via that map which can be used to figure out which stores are open and which are closed. There’s a nascent R package which contains all the recipes necessary for the data gathering. However, you don’t need to use it, since it powers wafflehouseindex.us which is collecting the data when the store closings info changes and provides a snapshot of the latest data daily (direct CSV link).

The historical data will make it to a git repo at some point in the near future.

The current index value is 21.2, which increased quickly after the first value of 18.1 (that event was the catalyst for getting the site up and package done) and the closed locations are on the map at the beginning of the post. I went with three qualitative levels on the gauge mostly to keep things simple.

There will absolutely be more location closings and it will be interesting (and, ultimately, very depressing and likely grave) to see how high the index goes and how long it stays above zero.

FIN

The metric is — for the time being — computed across all stores. As noted earlier, this could be broken down into regional index scores to intuit the aforementioned three indicators on a more local level. The historical data (apart from the first closings announcement) is being saved so it will be possible to go back and compute regional indexes when I’ve got more time.

I shall reiterate that you should grab the data from http://wafflehouseindex.us/data/latest.csv vs use the R package since there’s no point in dup’ing the gathering and the historical data will be up and maintained soon.

Stay safe, folks.



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