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Brown students release new website to streamline housing lottery

Using combined coding, data collection, three sophomores develop web-tool

As the University’s Housing Lottery approaches later this month, three sophomores at the University recently created and released Bear Dens, a new online service aimed at helping to guide students through the complicated process of choosing where to live next academic year.

Cole Horvitz ’22, Jordan Idehen ’22 and Jack Schaeffer ’22 came up with the idea for the website after struggling with the lottery during the spring of their first year. “I saw (my friends) organizing spreadsheets, going through data … I thought it could be made so much better and easier,” Horvitz said. “Housing is a critical part of one’s (University) experience … It impacts academic, social and mental health and students should be able to make a safe and responsible decision,” he added.

According to Horvitz, much of the difficulty students experience during the housing lottery stems from the University’s outdated online resources for on-campus housing.

“What we really noticed was … how clunky and old-fashioned the system was and … how stressful and time-consuming” it made the housing lottery process, Schaeffer said. The Bear Dens site is designed to address these issues.

Horvitz and Idehen began coding the website during the fall 2019 semester. But after completing CSCI 1300: “User Interfaces and User Experience” in the fall, they decided to scrap their code and “completely remodel the interface over winter break.”

On the home page of Brown Dens, students can apply filters including class year, location on campus, room type, floor level and square footage. Students can then click on different available dorms and the website will identify whether the selected dorm corresponds to their filtered preferences. “Basically, as you add filters you add or remove the rooms that match or don’t,” Idehen added.

This straightforward approach to organizing the data was inspired, in part, by Horvitz and Idehen’s time in CSCI 1300. “That’s where the … modern, simple, lightweight design came from,” Idehen said. Horvitz added that they also had sought advice from Jeff Huang, assistant professor of computer science and the instructor for the class. “Making an interface takes a lot of iteration and prototyping. I got a lot of feedback from him,” he said.

The three creators divided the work up between them: while Horvitz and Idehen coded most of the website, Schaeffer organized meetings with Residential Life, Residential Council and the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship and marketed the website to students.

According to the University website, ResCouncil is a “student advisory board that provides assistance and insight to the Office of Residential Life.”

Horvitz was responsible for designing the user interface of the Bear Dens website, and Idehen completed data engineering, feeding information about the existing housing options into the code of the platform.

The students worked primarily with ResLife and ResCouncil to collect data, and the project was otherwise entirely student-operated. “We didn’t ask for any funding,” Schaeffer said. He added that the students wanted the program to be accessible to all students, so “It’s all free to every user.”

Initially, Idehen collected data mostly by himself, but after realizing how much work the project required, he approached ResCouncil and “they agreed to help us and form a committee of six to eight students,” he added. Idehen suggested that ResCouncil was willing to communicate because “they’re students too, so they get where we are coming from.”

Victoria Cao ’23, a member of ResCouncil, agreed with the Bear Dens founders that the current housing lottery system is challenging for students to navigate. “The housing lottery is very intimidating and this tool will make the process easier for students to choose their housing,” she said. “ResLife could be doing more to make (the process)clear to students,” she added.

The Bear Dens founders have high hopes for student engagement with their service. “We already have over 1,000 users, and we’re expecting that number only to grow as the lottery approaches,” Schaeffer said. He added that they hope to incorporate student feedback into future developments of the website. “We have a lot of plans (for the site) but we aren’t sure where to start. We want to know what the students want from it first,” he added.

Ultimately, the three creators hope that students will use the site to make their housing lottery experience less stressful. “I also hope that this can inspire more students to take up projects like this to help Brown modernize interfaces,” Horvitz added. “We can accomplish a lot, even in just one year.”



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