Google Maps Platform

How WhyHunger uses Google Maps to connect people to grassroots community food sources

Editor's Note: Today’s blog is the first in a series of posts highlighting our support for Google public programs. Eligible nonprofits, startups, crisis response, and news media organizations may apply for Google Maps Platform credits through Google for Nonprofits, the Google Cloud Startup Program, Google Crisis Response and the Google News Initiative.

This post comes from Alison Cohen, Senior Director of Programs for WhyHunger. The nonprofit helps communities develop sustainable solutions for ending hunger and poverty. WhyHunger was able to access Google Maps Platform through Google for Nonprofits to build its Find Food map. Learn more about the products and resources available through Google for Nonprofits.

When people are hungry, they may not know where to turn for food – and they may be hesitant to ask for help. At WhyHunger, we want to remove the barriers that keep people from getting the help they need to stay healthy and thrive. We support grassroots groups that are tackling hunger in their communities, such as food banks and meal programs. Google Maps brings our database of 23,000 emergency food providers to our website, so no one has to go hungry.

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Photo by Diane Bondareff for WhyHunger

Many resources for food justice operate at the local level. We work to knit together organizations around the country that have the common goal of alleviating hunger and poverty – for example, sharing ideas for successful programs, and advocating for food as a basic human right. Our database is one way for us to look at food programs at a national level, and break down information so people can discover what’s available in the areas where they live. The WhyHunger Find Food tool uses Google Maps Platform to display food resources based on a zip code. The search results include phone numbers, addresses, and the type of programs available.

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We applied to Google for Nonprofits to get access to the Google Maps Platform products that help us create and expand the Find Food map. We used the APIs to integrate data sources with the map, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s summer meals database. The Geocoding API converts addresses for food sources into points on the Find Food map. Because the addresses for the U.S.D.A. meals programs change frequently, the API does the heavy lifting when it comes to converting address data. Then, we use the Maps JavaScript API to display the maps once people enter their zip codes.

Accessing Google Maps through Google for Nonprofits also helps us cover the costs, as more people use the maps to search for food. If we didn’t have access to these programs, it would have taken us much longer to create the map, and we would not be able to quickly connect users to essential resources.

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We started using Google Maps because the maps are easy to both build and use. People seeking food sources don’t need to wrestle with complicated maps. We briefly considered open-source map APIs, but they did not compare to Google Maps, which are the most accurate and comprehensive ones we’ve used. Accuracy is important for maps that show as many locations as ours do. We want people using our maps to see exact locations for food sources so they get what they need as quickly as possible.

We also rely on the maps ourselves: When people call our Hunger Hotline at 1-800-5HUNGRY, staff can quickly look at the Find Food map and tell callers what’s available locally and how to get there. People are now increasingly going directly to the maps instead of calling us first. Since the updated Find Food Map launched in 2015 an average of 9,000 people search the map per month, compared with 1,000 callers.

The time we save on coding maps and managing data is now spent on coming up with new ways to help hungry people get healthy food and address the root causes of hunger. When our Hunger Hotline service isn’t available, people can text a zip code to the hotline, and receive a text message with names and addresses of the 10 closest food sites. In the future, we hope to develop more ways to use Google Maps and our food program data to tackle hunger, community by community.