While doing our own version of WFH, scrolling through Twitter, appreciating memes for nailing how we're feeling, and FaceTiming our friends, The Youth Movement Against Alzheimer's (YMAA), 501c3, gathered a working group that included Facebook's Rishabh Aggarwal, to develop a COVID-19 Rapid Response project to help older adults through this isolating time.

For older adults living alone (& let's be real, young people too) mealtime can be a very lonely, sometimes to the point that you lose your appetite. We're all experiencing social isolation. We're all craving human connection beyond the walls of our homes. Food is always better when shared with someone else. Building on an idea developed by board member Robert Egger, this team built MealsTogether with a dream of ensuring that no one has to spend meals alone.

In these isolating times, it's nice to see another face. Seeing friends and family sparks joy. Seeing people - anyone - at this point, sparks joy. Connection sparks joy. Eating sparks joy.

What it does

MealsTogether connects people from different generations based on availability and language to share a meal together via Zoom. The matching algorithm gathers the interests of each partner, or FoodFriend, and pairs those who have the most shared interests, such that a more meaningful connection can be made. This algorithm is strictly intergenerational meaning that if you are an older adult, you will get partnered with someone much younger, and vice versa.

How we built it

MealsTogether was built primarily using react.js and Firebase. We built a form on our homepage that serves to both gather FoodFriend information and create the account. The matching algorithm runs on Firebase. Once FoodFriends are matched, they will receive emails (sent via SendGrid) and texts (sent via Twilio) to guide them up till the point of the actual meal time and remind them of when the meal will happen.

In order to build this project, we first focused on database design and realized that a NoSQL database structure would give us the flexibility to use the database both to store information and to run "jobs" which trigger at various points of the confirmation process. The database records information, not only to help with matching, but also to gather data that is useful for the nonprofit and future health partners to most appropriately expand the project. We also used Firebase to encrypt passwords and ensure data security.

In order to appropriately design the front-end, we used Figma to create wireframe designs. These designs were shared across the team and leveraged input from every team member to create the most simple user experience. We specifically added extra "how-to" videos to cater to older adults who may not be as tech-savvy.

We decided to use Zoom for video conferencing because of its ease of use and its ability to allow people "call-in" rather than use webcam, should they not have access to that technology. We anticipate that a significant proportion of older adults will simply "call-in" rather than use a webcam.

Challenges we ran into

The greatest challenge we ran into was integration with Zoom's API. After working with the API for many hours, we realized that there were certain parts of the API that were deprecated, making it impossible for us to appropriately get certain access tokens. In order to solve this problem, we used Zapier to create a meeting and stored the meeting URL onto Firebase. The ultimate user experience was not affected.

Another challenge was sending timed reminders to each FoodFriend. While we had the option of creating and triggering a dynamic scheduler, we decided that this would put too frequent of a call-time on Firebase and hence increase the cost for the nonprofit to maintain the database. Instead, we also found a way to trigger these reminders by creating a collection in our database specifically for sending out these emails and texts and triggering zapier (and hence sendGrid/Twilio) each time a "job" was created in this collection. The ultimate user experience was not affected.

Accomplishments that we're proud of

We are proud of our cohesive team effort. Between the conception of idea and hackathon submission was only 8 days. In that time, we created a ready-to-launch product that required back-end development, wireframing, product testing, copywriting, graphics generation, multiple API integrations, and a content creation strategy. In fact, we even did a focus group with an assisted living facility to gauge interest in using such a service, and we only moved forward after getting positive feedback.

What we learned

Crazy times call for crazy progress. Our team was relentless in the execution of this effort after having realized the potential it has to help people of all ages, especially older adults.

In specific to the development, we recognized the potential that the no-sql database structure to be flexible as we made edits to our fields through the course of development. We also learned that when working with an API, its important to check their updates and status to ensure it's not deprecated before spending hours trying to integrate it. In the future, Zoom's API will be powerful for our effort.

What's next for MealsTogether

There are still several development features that we are planning to add to the project in the next 1-2 weeks.

  • Calendar integration with Google Calendar and iCal.
  • Replies directly to FoodFriends after a meal.
  • Ability to share contact information via our platform with dual approval.
  • Whatsapp notification integration
  • Time Zone alignment

In specific to product launch, our team will be doing a round of friends and family testing this week, leading up to a soft-launch. We have a large network of assisted living facilities, nursing homes, colleges, and high school in order to launch this effort nationally within days. We will then be leveraging press to help get this wide-used.

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