New apps match donated items with people in need | Science News for Students

New apps match donated items with people in need

Teens developed them to aid the hungry or people suffering in the wake of major disasters
Nov 16, 2018 — 6:45 am EST
a photo of volunteers accepting donations in a warehouse

A California teen has developed an app that could better match food donations for the needy with food banks and other charities.


WASHINGTON, D.C. — The internet often does a good job of playing matchmaker. Potential buyers can find sellers. Dating websites help guys meet girls, and girls meet guys. Now, two teens have come up with apps to link donors of aid with people who need assistance.

Akshaya Venkatesh, 14, from Scottsdale, Ariz., wants to help the hungry. Last year, this 9th-grader attended the BASIS Scottsdale school. Shreyas Kar, 13, a 9th-grader who last year attended Meyzeek Middle School in Louisville, Ky., wants to aid people in dire straits after natural disasters. These might include floods and hurricanes. Both young researchers showcased the results of their computer programming skills here, last month. They were among 30 finalists at the eighth annual Broadcom MASTERS competition.

The event brings together U.S. middle-school students each year to tackle team challenges. (MASTERS stands for Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering for Rising Stars.) The program was created by Society for Science & the Public, which publishes Science News for Students and this blog. The Broadcom Foundation, headquartered in Irvine, Calif., sponsors the event.

Unlike most science competitions, only a small share of a finalist’s overall score is based on their qualifying science-fair research from the previous year. Roughly four-fifths of the students’ score reflects the creativity they showed and how well they worked to solve research challenges as part of a team.

Helping the hungry

A lot of food ends up in the trash. If that seems wasteful, that’s because it is. In the United States, more than 38 million tons of food gets thrown away each year. That’s according to a 2016 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A good-sized fraction of this waste consists of spoiled vegetables and fruit, notes Akshaya. “Even if something has a small brown spot on it, people will throw it away,” she says.

This teen had been volunteering to help the hungry. She collects fruit from neighbors’ trees, for instance, and then carries it to charities that feed the needy. “One family donates their lemons,” she says. “Another one donates their oranges.”

a photo of Akshaya Venkatesh holding her phone and standing in front of her science project
Akshaya Venkatesh, 14, of Scottsdale, Ariz., shows off her new matchmaking phone app.

A couple of years ago, Akshaya decided to use her computer programming skills to help even more. “I love programming,” she notes. “People think it’s super nerdy, but I like it. It’s like a game.”

The app she created lets people log in and list the type of produce that they have: vegetables, fruit, whatever. They can also list other information, including their address. Then, any charity worker that logs in to the app can see what’s available. Users can contact the donors to arrange for workers to harvest or pick up the fresh produce.

One non-profit group has helped Akshaya test her app. She hopes to expand use of this program soon. If that happens, more organizations, including local food banks, should be able to receive donations of fresh food that might otherwise go to waste.

Akshaya’s app might help the world in other ways, too. Many crops are kept hydrated by feeding them irrigation water. If any of the harvested crops then go to waste, that irrigation water will also have been wasted, the teen notes. And then there is the climate impact of wasted food. When produce rots, it releases carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Emissions from all the world’s wasted food each year adds up to about 4.4 billion metric tons of CO2, Akshaya points out. That figure comes from a 2011 study by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. If the emissions from all rotting food were tallied as if they came from one country, only the United States and China  would send more human-caused greenhouse gases into the air each year.

So, the less food that is wasted, Akshaya explains, the better it is for the environment.

After disasters strike

When hurricanes, fires or floods devastate an area, large numbers of people can suddenly become very needy. People, companies and organizations often rush in to help. Big problems can arise, though, in linking up these donors and the people who need their aid. That’s where apps such as the one being created by Shreyas might help.

a photo of Shreyas Kar holding a laptop and standing in front of his science project
Shreyas Kar, 13, of Louisville, Ky., wanted to help people in the wake of natural disasters, so he developed an app that enables charities helping the needy to identify and locate supplies donated by companies and individuals.

Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas, in August 2017. Storm damage there was followed by severe flooding. The next month, Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico. For much of a year, many residents of that U.S. island had no electricity. Shreyas saw that many people wanted to help end the suffering. “But many times, the donations didn’t match the need,” he notes. Right after such disasters, some of the greatest need is for basic items. This might be water, soap and toiletries, he points out. So he developed an app where a community could report what it needs.

First, he talked to people who work with charities to get their ideas. Then, he came up with ideas about what the pages in his app should look like. After that, he started programming. Finally, he ran a few tests. And they were largely successful, he notes.

Once logged in, someone “should be able to identify the most needed items,” the teen says, “and then donate them.” Donors can even schedule when and where to drop off their items. Or, charities that need aid could log into the app and see what donations are available. Then they could contact the donors to arrange for a pickup. As matches are made, the app could automatically update the inventory of available goods, Shreyas explains.

He has shared the app with some charities in his home town. He hopes the matchmaker app will become increasingly useful. For now, this teen is studying to become a mathematician. “I want to do more research and find new ways to solve problems,” he says.

The future would seem to hold many problems for young researchers like Akshaya and Shreyas to solve. Indeed, hunger and natural disasters will likely challenge humanity for decades to come. 

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

agriculture     The growth of plants, animals or fungi for human needs, including food, fuel, chemicals and medicine.

annual     Adjective for something that happens every year.

app     Short for application, or a computer program designed for a specific task.

atmosphere     The envelope of gases surrounding Earth or another planet.

Broadcom MASTERS     Created in 2011 by the Society for Science & the Public, Broadcom MASTERS (Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering Rising Stars) is the premier middle school science and engineering fair competition. Broadcom MASTERS International gives select middle school students from around the world a unique opportunity to attend the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair.

carbon dioxide (or CO2)     A colorless, odorless gas produced by all animals when the oxygen they inhale reacts with the carbon-rich foods that they’ve eaten. Carbon dioxide also is released when organic matter burns (including fossil fuels like oil or gas). Carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas, trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere. Plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen during photosynthesis, the process they use to make their own food.

climate     The weather conditions that typically exist in one area, in general, or over a long period.

crop     (in agriculture) A type of plant grown intentionally grown and nurtured by farmers, such as corn, coffee or tomatoes. Or the term could apply to the part of the plant harvested and sold by farmers. 

dire     An adjective that means grave, or hard to survive.

engineering     The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

environment     The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature and humidity (or even the placement of things in the vicinity of an item of interest).

Environmental Protection Agency (or EPA)     A national government agency charged with helping create a cleaner, safer and healthier environment in the United States. Created on Dec. 2, 1970, it reviews data on the possible toxicity of new chemicals (other than foods or drugs, which are regulated by other agencies) before they are approved for sale and use. Where such chemicals may be toxic, it sets limits or guidelines on how much of them may be released into (or allowed to build up in) the air, water or soil.

greenhouse gas     A gas that contributes to the greenhouse effect by absorbing heat. Carbon dioxide is one example of a greenhouse gas.

internet     An electronic communications network. It allows computers anywhere in the world to link into other networks to find information, download files and share data (including pictures).

irrigation     The supply of water to land or crops to help growth.

link     A connection between two people or things.

log      (in research) The process of recording data for use or analysis later. For instance, doctors may ask people who take part in a drug trial to every day log how they feel and any change in their weight or health. Researchers can later go over the logs to see if and when people got better — or worse. Scientists tend to log all of the conditions of their experiments into lab notebooks. That way they can compare the findings from one test with all others — or what conditions they need to faithfully copy if they need to rerun a test.

methane     A hydrocarbon with the chemical formula CH4 (meaning there are four hydrogen atoms bound to one carbon atom). It’s a natural constituent of what’s known as natural gas. It’s also emitted by decomposing plant material in wetlands and is belched out by cows and other ruminant livestock. From a climate perspective, methane is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide is in trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere, making it a very important greenhouse gas.

resident     Some member of a community of organisms that lives in a particular place. (Antonym: visitor)

technology     The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

waste     Any materials that are left over from biological or other systems that have no value, so they can be disposed of as trash or recycled for some new use.