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Juan David’s Newsletter - March 7th, 2023
UIUCFreeFood: Helping Thousands of Students, One Tweet at a Time
In my annual review, I wrote about how I love working on ideas from scratch but I wasn’t great at what comes after: iteration, iteration, and iteration.
First, I have a lot of energy, more like a shit ton of energy, to get started, build something, and finish the 1.0 version. But oh man! This is where the second point arrives. When it comes to the second, third, fourth….and tenth versions, I seemed not to care anymore, and I just want to work on the next thing. This is nuts! What are the odds the first version I created for myself will be the one people truly want?
For 2023, I wanted to focus on making existing projects the best they can be rather than jumping at a new project idea every week. Of course, I will create new projects but the focus will be on existing projects.
One of these projects was the UIUCFreeFood and here were my goals:
While the UIUC Free Food took off, there are many improvements:
Incentives: I need to add incentives so people want to share about the free food. I could give people status and coupons at local restaurants or inform them about free food in advance.
Talk to local restaurants: I’d like to see if they can give us free food and coupons to the people who share, as well as small samples we can give away but could promote their business. I have yet to do it because this requires me going and talking to the business owners, which I’ll enjoy but it’ll take lots of time, but it’ll be worth it because I’ll get to meet those people, and they’ll be interesting.
It’s a toy!: Another reason I'm excited about the UIUCFreeFood is because it's a toy, and toys become the big things of the future.
This has gone way better than I could have ever predicted.
When the Spring semester began, I went to talk to many local restaurants. Many were not interested, some were nice, and a few were excited. You only need a few excited ones to get the ball (or the food) rolling.
If you are not familiar with how the UIUCFreeFood started, here’s a quick recap.
The story begins during a typical finals week. The semester is nearing an end, and the summer is coming! I was at Altgeld Hall during the differential equations finals review session, and I got this idea for some reason (I was probably hungry). I wrote it down as usual. I returned to my dorm around 9 PM, and the idea came up again. I felt the excitement, and this is when I knew it was worth working on it. I started working on it around 9:30 PM. I finished it and went to sleep around 4 AM. Not wise because I had a final the next day at noon, but…. I've learned to follow my intuition. When I have an idea for something, and I want to do it. I NEED TO DO IT as fast as possible. Inspiration is perishable.
On campus, there are always free food “opportunities.” Every day there is an event with free food. Typically, you’d need to rely on friends, Snapchat stories, or the school Reddit to find out. The signal-to-noise ratio is too high, meaning to find what I'm looking for (let's say free food), I would need to plow through hundreds of social media posts and hours to find what I'm looking for.
But what if you create a place to find free food when you want it? That's precisely what I made with the UIUC Free Food Twitter Bot. It works because it’s a student-generated place where students find out and share free food opportunities levering crowdsourcing and human computation methods. Or think about it this way. Are you hungry? Go to the @UIUCFreeFood Twitter Page. Know about free food? Submit the form to let other students know.
The platform has been highly successful, with over 1600 followers, almost 1,000,000 impressions since its creation (150,000 monthly), and over 100,000 profile visits. More importantly, it has helped thousands of students by providing a centralized location for free food opportunities. UIUCFreeFood has even become a daily routine in students' lives.
One student said this:
The project's first stage was a big success in helping students with the crowdsourced tool, but it was perplexing how rapidly it took off. This was a sign of a deeper problem: college food insecurity. Health Affairs called campus food insecurity "The Invisible Epidemic." This affects thousands of students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and harshly affects minority, low-income, and vulnerable students. In the first few months, students would submit free food events around campus, which became big help for many students.
But that was only the beginning. The second stage is where restaurants give free food as well as the continuation of crowdsourcing free food. UIUCFreeFood consistently reaches over 200,000 impressions every single month, and at any given moment, we reach more than 20% of the campus population. This is exciting because it allows me to create a win-win situation for the restaurants and the students.
To illustrate this stage. I'll show you a few examples. UIUCFreeFood has partnered with many restaurants to give free food to students. Last week, we did an event with a Mexican food restaurant and over 200 people received free cheese quesadillas.
See a video.
And see a happy student!
The restaurant owners were delighted and wanted to do an even more significant event to help more people.
Today, we did another event and almost 300 people showed up.
In less than 12 hours, we reached 10,000 people, or 20% of the campus population. This is huge because of what it allows you to do.
This is just one example out of many partnerships. The following example is the partnership with a Middle Eastern food restaurant.
We did an event with them a few weeks ago, and they loved it (See the event reaching almost 20% of the campus population or nearly 10,000 people).
That was one event. The following week, we did another event and we reached over 16,000 people, or about 35% of the campus population. Over 400 falafels were given away.
These are just a few examples of the level of things you can create by first creating cool projects and second, being naive and letting the world prove you wrong. One uncertainty I had was whether restaurants would agree. Would they? I don’t know. Let’s go ask them and see. Some did and some didn’t. But we only need a few believers to help a big number of people.
This is hard to grasp, but these free food events are the difference between doing well in an exam or attending class and even the difference between graduating and not. A contribution that goes a long way in students' hearts and futures.
UIUCFreeFood went from being only a crowdsourced platform to a platform where restaurants are also giving free food. The first stage was helpful. The second stage was incredibly helpful. But this is only the beginning of a bigger plan that continues to evolve.
The third stage is creating a market to solve these inefficiencies, create more incentives, and effectively create a campus community where everyone is well-nourished. I don't want to say, "End food insecurity" because saying that implies having food insecurity. But that is, in a way, the goal. Was that why I created it? Of course, not. I created it because I thought it was a cool project, and it happened to be useful. Continue reading about why I created it.
UIUCFreeFood is also a model of the kind of innovation you can create by aligning the incentives of groups. It's also a sign of the times and how technology empowers individuals to create change. Believe it or not, individuals can still do things, not everything has to be done in groups as people want you to believe. Combining technology, social innovation, design, and creativity, individuals can solve problems and, more importantly, create cool things. The bottom-up design/approach to innovation is what the American spirit of invention stands for.
The UIUCFreeFood helps thousands of students every week in a real, tangible way with no support from anyone. We haven't received money, support, or anything else from anyone. It's a solution that works by leveraging the wonders of technology to solve problems that help people with no significant investment of money. To be crystal clear, 0 dollars have been put into UIUCFreeFood.
There are numerous food insecurity groups, committees, and student groups. But it is in the combination of technology and social innovation we can create what was never possible before, helping students greatly but also consistently daily. The latter point might seem obvious, but people eat every day!
With the UIUCFreeFood, I’ve stumbled upon a fascinating problem, and it’s beautiful. Coordination, incentives, and logistics. You get these three things right, and you can solve any problem on Earth! There’s a spinoff of the UIUCFreeFood for free headshots or free rides from Urbana-Champaign to Chicago (so many have empty cars and could use a little help in coordination).
This is a super interesting area that gets me weirdly excited, and that’s an excellent sign. I don’t know why I’m saying this, but there’s a chance I spend a good portion of my life in these types of problems. Information from the right people, compressed (take out the noise), distributed to the right people. That’s the pattern.
In essence, I want to figure out The Logistics of Everything solving the logistics of everything through human computation/crowdsourcing and solve these seemingly complex problems that become easy to solve and help with human computation methods.
What I'm learning could be applied to any problem and getting crowds is something everyone wants but no one really knows how to do.
Hyper-localized efforts such as the UIUCFreeFood are the future. We've seen how damaging Silicon Valley's approach to changing the world has harmed communities across all groups. Hyper-localization is this new approach, and with the UIUCFreeFood, we've seen how useful and impactful it is. A new model waits to be invented.
My vision for UIUCFreeFood aligns with Buckminster Fuller's life mission: “To make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest time possible through spontaneous cooperation without ecological damage or disadvantage to anyone.”
That's what I want to do with the UIUCFreeFood and many of my past, present, and future projects throughout my life.
See you next week,
Juan David Campolargo