Thinking Tech

Food-bot can tell you where to find free food

Food-bot can tell you where to find free food

Posting in Food

If you're a starving college student or even just plain starving, there's a new website you might want to bookmark.

If you're a starving college student or just plain starving, there's a new website you might want to bookmark.

Food-bot, a recipient of Carnegie-Mellon University's Smiley award for innovation, locates and lists upcoming events on college campuses that serve free food -- although there is a bit of a catch.

Many groups who put on these events entice people with free food as a way to promote a cause or get more people involved. So in order for site users to know what they're getting themselves into, each event listing includes ratings on the level of food quality, time commitment and awkwardness for those who may be interested in attending.

The idea for the website came about in 2009 when Greg Woloschyn, a recent graduate of Carnegie-Mellon's computer science program, was looking for ways to get by on a meager student budget. To find events that served free food, he initially subscribed to several online student group mailing lists using his Gmail account and set up keyword filters to weed out irrelevant listings.

This system, however, was fairly rudimentary and not nearly as accurate in identifying "free food" events as he would have liked. He eventually ditched the gmail filters in favor of creating a computer program that relied on artificial intelligence to improve detection rates while also periodically crawling various student group websites to find more catered events.

"What's great about the system is that it can be trained to search for certain keywords like pizza and other elements in the announcement that indicated the event most likely served free food," Woloschyn told SmartPlanet. "It's a self-sustaining system."

Still, he acknowledges that the website's automated detection system isn't perfect. To ensure accuracy, he manually reviews and approves everything that the program fetches prior to posting. And as the website expands beyond college campus events, perhaps to even include company-sponsored events, he may implement tweaks that allow users to give feedback in order to verify results.

"It does make mistakes sometimes," says the 23-year-old inventor. "There's no way the website can function without human input, but I try to minimize the input as much as possible."

The site also allows student groups to post and advertise their events, a concept that a surprisingly large number of groups are happy to do.

"Even though they (the organizers) will probably end up with people coming for the food, they're OK with it," he says. "because a lot of times they just want people to show up."

To learn more, check out www.food-bot.com.

Photo: Greg Woloschyn

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure