Students develop an online database of resources for people experiencing homelessness

Inspired by an encounter with a homeless man, students at the University of California, Davis designed Carefinder, a website and searchable database that helps people experiencing homelessness find shelters, food banks, medical clinics, and other resources.

Noah Rose Ledesma was walking through downtown Davis, California, when he encountered a homeless man selling newspapers. “On the back page of the newspaper was a list of resources available to those who were homeless or at risk of losing their homes, in addition to resources for those with homeless and people at risk of homelessness, substance use disorders, mental health emergencies, or other crises in the Davis area,” he says. This got Ledesma, a sophomore studying computer science (CS) at the University of California, Davis, thinking. “What if we could use technology to provide a database of local resources for people experiencing homelessness?” he says.

Ledesma got together with fellow CS students, UC Davis juniors Nadia Etemadi and Akash Malode, to develop this idea at the university’s HackDavis hackathon in February 2019. “The challenge was upscaling the team the possible ways we could get a project like this working,” he shares. “What are the different components, how do they work together?

The students decided to use Google Cloud “because it offered many of the technologies we knew we needed to bring our project to life—database hosting and cloud functions.” They were able to use these tools for free thanks to Google Cloud credits for learning. With tools in place, they dove into creating their hackathon project. “Akash and Nadia were new to web development, and we were all new to Google Cloud,” Ledesma recalls. “So we had to learn these technologies at the hackathon.”

The team decided to create a website and database of resources for displaced people, particularly those affected by the Northern California Camp Fire in 2018. Their website would be different from others, Ledesma explains, by offering a one-stop destination for resources, rather than users searching the Internet or individual social services sites separately for food, clothing, shelter, and other help.

The students spent the next 24 hours using Google Cloud tools to bring this idea to life. “Google Cloud offers absolutely incredible guides on their website,” Ledesma says. “They offer everything from short Quickstart guides to really in-depth technical documentation. That allowed us to collect the information that we needed to start prototyping very quickly.”

Ledesma used Google Cloud SQL to set up a database hosted on Google Cloud. Malode researched resources for displaced persons in the Davis and Sacramento areas, and built an Android app for the team end users to manually enter information into their database once it is fully launched. Ledesma then used the Geocoding API, part of the Google Maps Platform, to convert addresses into coordinates, which were stored in their database. Etemadi designed and developed the website’s front end, building a simple-to-use interface listing resources such as “medical help,” “legal help,” and “shelters,” which users could select to filter their search and get results.

Image: Diagram 1: The Carefinder team logs resources in a Cloud SQL database. The resources are localized using the Google Maps Geocoding API. Users access this data to find resources near them.

Their final product, the Davis Displacement Database, won HackDavis 2019 Second Place (Overall) and Best Environmental Hack. “We never expected to win anything,” Ledesma says. “The tech wasn't crazy advanced, but we were still able to do something good with our application. We realized we could impact the community, with potential to impact the world.”

Scaling up for greater good

Shortly after their hackathon success, the students were contacted by Arman Hezarkhani, a Google Cloud consultant, who offered advice on how to develop their database architecture and website functionality. “He helped us rebuild our project from the ground up, providing resources and guidance on how to polish our project,” Ledesma says.

For starters, they gave their product a new name. “Davis Displacement Database was the original name of our project, because we were limited to resources in Davis and surrounding areas,” says web developer Nadia Etemadi. “When we rebuilt our project, we renamed it to CareFinder, because the goal was to make this applicable to people across the country, not just in Davis.”

With a vision to serve people who were homeless, displaced, and in need beyond their area, the students were ready to start building out their new product. To begin, Hezarkhani introduced them to Google Cloud Firestore, a serverless, cloud-native NoSQL database to store, sync, and query Carefinder’s data.

“Firestore offered some really great features that were fundamental in how we built the new version of Carefinder,” Ledesma says. "[With other, non-managed databases and database services,] if you're interested in taking information out or putting information into that database, you're going to have to write a lot of code. Firestore is everything you want in one package. It's the code and the database. The ability to insert and retrieve information from our database is turned into one line of code. It’s incredible.”

The team also used Google APIs to verify their data. “For example, the Geocoding API allows us to figure out where a physical place is and store that in our database. And we use Google Maps’ Geolocation API on the front end to figure out where someone is looking for a resource,” Ledesma says.

“Firestore is everything you want in one package. It's the code and the database. It’s incredible.”

Noah Rose Ledesma, student, University of California, Davis

Imagining what’s possible

The UC Davis students hope to further develop Carefinder in the months ahead. Their vision for the future of Carefinder is two-fold: provide a way for people experiencing homelessness or displacement to find local resources in their communities; and offer analytics to help communities determine areas of greatest need and how to allocate resources. Ledesma says they’re also thinking about crowdsourcing, partnering with nonprofit organizations, and other ways to keep their database up to date. They are also thinking about how to add a mobile text-messaging feature so people with cellphones could access their website’s resources.

Looking back, Ledesma says, “Google Cloud empowered us to spend less time working on things that don’t matter and more time developing our mission. We didn't have to spend hours reading through guides and cryptic forum posts, and instead we were able to just spend our time figuring out how somebody is going to use our application, and what's the best way we can reach our target.”

To other students who’d like to use their coding skills for good—to build something to help their communities or benefit a good cause—he says, “If you have a dream or a mission, Google Cloud has the steps in between for you. We had this idea and Google Cloud gave us the tech to do it.”

“Google Cloud empowered us to spend less time working on things that don’t matter and more time developing our mission.”

Noah Rose Ledesma, student, University of California, Davis

Get started with Google Cloud’s higher education learning center at: g.co/learncloud/programs