HCI students’ app addresses food insecurity, wins Indy Civic Hack
September 24, 2021
In Indiana, 1 in 7 Hoosiers is food insecure.
This was the premise of the winning concept at the 2021 Indy Civic Hackathon. The challenge to participants this year was to brainstorm and research possible solutions to strengthening neighborhoods, using data and technology.
The School of Informatics and Computing (SoIC) at IUPUI team of Akash Rode, Sarah Nikkhah, and Hinal Kiri (pictured left to right), all graduate students in the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) program, took first place with a mobile application concept for addressing food insecurity, which they named Food Friend Indiana.
The team researched the problem thoroughly, finding that around 1 million people in Indiana are food insecure. The USDA defines that term as a “lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.” In Marion County alone, 3% of residents have an unmet need for food; half of those are families with children.
Accessing a treasure trove of data
The Indy Civic Hack grew from an idea in 2014, spearheaded by Brian Norris and Matt Kirby, and supported by volunteers representing local government agencies, non-profits, for-profits, and community groups, to make more government data sets accessible to the public. It is now an annual event, open to the community, that encourages use of the vast amount of data available in response to societal challenges.
As Scott Moshier, VP Data Solutions at Metamor Systems and volunteer with the Indy Civic Hack, explained, “The genesis of this was to show the government—both city and state governments here in Indiana—two different things. One is the tech community could come out and try to help them with the problems that they had. Secondly, if the government provided machine-readable data that applications could actually use…then there could be a bunch of different apps that could be created, whether they be web apps or mobile apps or what have you….that could really help the community in general.
“Over the years we’ve expanded that model because what we’ve seen is both the city of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana have created open data portals and they’ve populated those with really interesting and valuable data,” Moshier said. Over the last several years the group has broadened their efforts to more of a community program, asking how data can be used to better the community overall. “It’s been an interesting collaboration between governments, for-profit companies as well as not-for-profits, and community groups. The overall focus is inclusive growth: the idea of how can we include everybody, all citizens, in the growth of Indianapolis?”
Rode, Kiri, and Nikkhah conducted a focus group with several local organizations, including Indy Hunger Network, Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana, Center for Victim and Human Rights, and the Immigrant Welcome Center, and interviewed the Foodbank of Northern Indiana. They also performed a literature review and found there was a stigma around locating and using food-related resources. In the process, the team discovered another challenge: While non-profit organizations and volunteers play a substantial role in addressing food insecurity, two out of three decreased or stopped volunteer activities during the covid pandemic.
The Food Friends Indiana app aims to solve problems for all three types of users: organizations, volunteers, and clients.
Putting HCI skills to work for good
“This hackathon brought to our attention the smallest things we could take for granted—like availability of food, ability to speak a language and to be understood. We realized the depth of the food insecurity problem in Indianapolis, and how an inclusive volunteering environment can benefit the community,” said Kiri.
Nikkhah added, “Being able to contribute and give back to the community through research and design skills was the most important highlight of attending the Indy Civic Hackathon.”
Taking that learning to find a real-world solution that benefits the whole community, was a fortuitous experience.
All three students credited coursework at the School of Informatics and Computing, as well as mentoring by HCI Professor of Practice Lou Lenzi, for their success. “It was a team-effort and every team member had a role to play. Participating in several team-based projects while pursuing courses at SoIC prepared us for this Hackathon,” Rode said. The HCI program teaches a human-centered approach to design that puts user needs first, as well as soft skills like presentation. Rode says the team intends to stay in touch with the organizations working to eradicate food insecurity issues and continue to learn how to best help them.
After graduating with her PhD, Nikkhah wants to pursue a career as a user experience (UX) researcher. On completion of the master’s program, Rode hopes to work as a product designer and Kiri is inclined toward music UXD but is still exploring her options.
More about Food Friend Indiana mobile app
To develop the app concept, the team first created a client persona and developed a client journey map, showing the various steps from identifying a need to locating and picking up food to eat. They also created journey maps for the food distribution organization and for a potential volunteer. The resulting app connects a food insecure person to an organization and helps the organization function more efficiently with more volunteers and retention of those volunteers, as well as publicizing their work. The team also researched feasibility and cost for developing and maintaining the app.
Using the app, organizations can create a dashboard to monitor their activities; manage events; and find, register and communicate with volunteers. Volunteers can search and explore opportunities to help; make donations; register for events; and follow organizations. Clients can search for specific services, like meals, groceries, and WIC and SNAP retailers, based on location, distance, and open hours; review event details; and find healthy meal recipes. They can even be connected with specific volunteers if there is a language barrier.