As COVID-19 has made its way across the Bay Area, many local schools have shut down to help prevent further spread of the virus. But these closures have created an accessibility challenge for many families that rely on the free meals that these schools continue to provide. The closures have left many of them wondering where, when and what meals are being served.

Now, a group of Stanford students who enrolled in the spring course Data Challenge Lab are using their data-science training to help. In partnership with local school districts, nonprofit organizations and newsrooms, the students have created and are distributing a digital map with detailed information about the many sites around the region where local schoolchildren can access free meals during the closures.

“We felt frustrated about the amount of disruption this was causing to many people’s lives in the Bay Area,” said Joyce Tagal, a graduate student studying education and public policy. “So we jumped on a call to see what we could do to help.”

In addition to Tagal, the group includes graduate students Amy DiPierro and Rachel Oh (communication), co-terminal student Chris LeBoa (epidemiology) and undergrads Stone Yang (symbolic systems and economics) and Charlie Hoffs (chemical engineering). With guidance from communication lecturer Cheryl Phillips, the students worked remotely to gather data from various sources and create a detailed data visualization viewable to the public.

Mapping meals

The virtual map the students created displays 441 grab-and-go meal sites in 10 Bay Area counties. Sites are marked with different symbols that indicate the days and times that each site is open. The map also shows whether a site offers breakfast, lunch or both, as well as which sites have eligibility requirements for recipients, such as enrollment and age restrictions.

Stanford students created a virtual map showing Bay Area sites that provide resource, including free meals, to schoolchildren. (Image credit: Courtesy Joyce Tagal)

“Most schools offer food to any child regardless of enrollment or age,” Tagal said.

The students researched each school district’s website for detailed information. They also collaborated with Second Harvest of Silicon Valley, a nonprofit food bank that is distributing food to residents in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. The students are relying heavily on local media companies to get the word out about the map. Phillips has connected the students with local news organizations like Bay City News Service, a regional wire service that disseminates news to other media companies in the Bay Area.

Hoffs said that she and her colleagues are considering whether there are better digital communication methods to help local residents access this information.

“While websites might be more accessible on a computer, more people have phones and access to cellular service,” she said. “So a text about meal district sites might be more effective to folks than a map.”

Most Bay Area school districts will remain closed for the next few weeks, and possibly beyond. In the meantime, the students will continue to update the map daily as the information changes or new information becomes available.

Data for good

In addition to the Data Challenge Lab, the students have received training from the Big Local News project in the Journalism program in Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences. Founded by Phillips, the project collects governmental data that are difficult to obtain and analyze. Leboa said that these educational opportunities and the map they created highlight the interdisciplinary nature of data science, as well as the different ways data science training at Stanford can be used for good.

“From the beginning, we wanted to know what pieces of information people can use to get through this hard time and how can we employ our skills,” he said. “I would really challenge students to think about how we use the skills we learn in our Stanford classes for good.”

Tagal agreed, saying that although the coronavirus pandemic has forced the Stanford community to leave campus, students can continue to use their Stanford training and education in meaningful ways.

“I hope Stanford students who are stressed about all of this are able to use this nervous energy for better,” Tagal said. “I think there are so many other communities being affected by this and we have so many skills and time to offer that I hope more people try to do projects that are team-based like this.”