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New site sniffs out free food on campus

Student-made website uses algorithm to identify events most likely to include free food

Students who go off meal plan may face a critical challenge — finding a way to save as much money on food as humanly possible.

One group of students has attempted to tackle that problem — a team of four, including juniors from both Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design, launched freefoodatbrown.com last week. The website that works to bring student groups and undergraduates together with the promise of free food and the chance for a new experience.

The website’s co-creator Charles Yeh ’14 said it has had almost 900 visits from more than 350 unique users since launching. The site collects information from Morning Mail, runs a program to determine what event descriptions might include free food and posts those events on the website two days in advance.

“Brown Morning Mail has a feed with structured data,” said Max Song ’14, one of the website’s creators. “We’re taking that feed and running very simple machine learning. There’s some keywords that we’ve identified that really positively correlate with free food events — we weight those very heavily.”

The idea for the site came out of an experiment that Song and Yeh assigned themselves last semester.

“There was almost a challenge to see how fast we could do it,” Song said. “Ninety percent of the project took place within a 48-hour window.”

The pair worked with RISD Dual Degree student JS Tan ’15 and RISD student Sam Jau. From a Friday night until Sunday evening, the four sequestered themselves in an upper floor of the Center for Information Technology and took the project from concept to completion.

“We sat around the table and for the most part lost track of time,” Song said. “The all-nighter between Friday night and Saturday morning was totally unnoticeable.”

Yeh handled most of the back-end work of the website — accessing the Morning Mail data and trying to determine what words are most correlated with free food.

“It’s actually really simple,” he said. “It’s just by probability. We found that looking for some words like ‘free’ and ‘food’ was actually really bad. … You find a lot of non-free-food events. Even adding ‘pizza’ was surprisingly bad.”

Rather than choosing any event with a description that includes the word “food,” the site creates a probabilistic model based on the likelihood that any individual word — like “reception” — in the event’s description is a signal that free food will be at the event.

“We multiply all the probabilities together,” Yeh said. “It’s not perfectly accurate because it’s only single words. We do have to check it and make sure that it is right.”

“I was a little more interested in the idea behind the project, the whole ‘48 hours to completion’ thing,” Jau said. “Kind of proving that design is about simple solutions to complex problems.”

Jau, who is studying graphic design at RISD, took charge of the visual aspects of the site’s creation. The layout is clean and easy to navigate, with a sidebar labeled “Today’s Menu” that lists three days’ worth of food at a time. Simple icons represent the time and location of events on the “menu,” and minimalist logos of pizza, ice cream and various drinks line the banner at the top.

“I wanted to create a really user-friendly interface,” he said. “We went through a bunch of different ideas, like maybe creating something for mobile instead of Web because people would be checking this stuff on the go instead of in front of a computer — or maybe even creating an app.”

Jau said that the team may be looking to expand the site into new mediums such as smartphone applications. One possible feature could be pop-up notifications when a free food event is nearby, Yeh said.

Though BlogDailyHerald runs a similar “Free Food Digest” based on the same principles, the creators of freefoodatbrown.com said the two publications are different in the markets they try to serve.

“There’s no sense of competition,” Song said. “Everyone is doing it for the sake of Brown students — there’s not much to gain from one person using this website.”

BlogDailyHerald publishes commentary along with each event, while Song said freefoodatbrown.com is hoping the site’s free food-recognition algorithm will eventually become sophisticated enough that human oversight will be unnecessary.

“Right now, it’s about being — as much as we can be — automated, so there’s little overhead,” he said. “The human element costs a lot more time and investment than our ultimate mission, which is to get the information out there for people to have a reliable way of accessing it.”

Song said the group originally worried about whether freefoodatbrown.com might encourage students to attend events solely for the food. The group members said they agreed that it probably would, but decided that was not necessarily a bad thing.

“You’d be surprised at how many people go to events that they don’t want to be at and discover that they learn something new,” Song said.

“You go there because of pizza, but you learn about all these different clubs,” Yeh said. “It’s a good trade-off, I think.”



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