Tuesday, April 24

Student scrutinizes meal swipes for social good


UCLA student Ritvik Kharkar collected data from a Facebook group where students buy and sell meal swipes to determine whether UCLA Housing lost revenue because of the "swipes black market." (Catherine Liberty Feliciano/Daily Bruin senior staff)

UCLA student Ritvik Kharkar collected data from a Facebook group where students buy and sell meal swipes to determine whether UCLA Housing lost revenue because of the "swipes black market." (Catherine Liberty Feliciano/Daily Bruin senior staff)


Ritvik Kharkar considers analyzing the black market for dining hall swipes a matter of social good.

His analysis compiles colorful graphs with sharp spikes representing the alternating high and low numbers of swipes for sale throughout the academic year. He found students tended to sell swipes at an increased rate for less money toward the end of each academic quarter, right before their meal plans reset. Green, yellow and red lines illustrate different estimates of how much money UCLA Dining Services loses based on his data.

Kharkar, a fourth-year mathematics of computation and economics student, collected data from a Facebook group where students buy and sell meal swipes to determine whether UCLA Housing and Hospitality Services lost revenue because of the “swipes black market.”

[Related: Dining Services, ASUCLA Meal Numeration Coupon Program grows stale]

The dining hall swipe analysis is just one of Kharkar’s many side projects. His main research started last summer with the California Research Training Program in Computational and Applied Mathematics at UCLA, which used 15 years worth of data to track students’ performance in the UCLA mathematics department, he said.

His research partner and fourth-year mathematics of computation student, Jessica Tran, continued to work with the data after the program ended. The two presented a poster at the Joint Mathematics Meeting in January about whether UCLA’s mathematics major has the best core curriculum for students, he said.

Tran said they also analyzed the data to identify whether some groups of students tended to perform better than others in the mathematics major based on their performance in core math courses.

They found that some groups of students performed worse than others and tended to drop out of the major or UCLA, she said. The group with a lower average GPA was mostly transfer students or students who had transferred into the mathematics major and did not have a strong mathematics background, she added.

“The work quickly became personal,” Kharkar said. “In the future, you can catch these students before they become trapped.”

Tran said they met with the mathematics department chair and counselors to discuss their findings. She added the department is trying to improve resources for students without strong backgrounds in mathematics.

She said she thinks Kharkar’s understanding of mathematics and data allows him to see multiple ways they can use UCLA data to understand students better.

“He’s so interested in using what he knows for the good of humanity,” she said. “A lot of people are still trying to figure out what they’re passionate about doing, but I think Ritvik has found it.”

[Related: Mathematics department’s Will Conley receives My Last Lecture Award]

Kharkar also has a YouTube channel where he posts narrated videos featuring hand-drawn and brightly annotated diagrams explaining topics such as why he thinks people should never play blackjack and how misinformation spread in light of the June 1 murder-suicide on campus.

“I created (YouTube videos) to help myself remember things,” he said. “But it’s become more of how can the everyday person apply math in their everyday life.”

Marissa Rodriguez, Kharkar’s co-resident assistant during the 2015-2016 academic year and a fourth-year psychology student, said she has observed Kharkar use mathematics to help people – whether it be tutoring them in math or helping them make logical choices for their future.

“Every time I walked into his room, he was always working on something, but it wasn’t necessarily for class,” she said. “He dedicated his extra time to these big graphs with lots of numbers.”

With his study on dining hall swipes, Kharkar said he wanted to show students how they were affected by the swipes black market and show UCLA Housing and Hospitality Services that policies barring students from trading or selling swipes are ineffective.

UCLA spokesperson Alison Hewitt said in an email statement that the meal plan policies exist to prevent unaccompanied strangers from accessing dining halls and threatening students’ security.

“UCLA Dining Services determines meal plan rates with a thorough and effective budgeting process that balances maximizing revenue with minimizing student costs,” she said. “There is no single number that accurately reflects the cost of one meal swipe.”

Kharkar said he thinks the study can still help inform dining services about how to improve the meal plan system, even though it relied on a lot of assumptions about how the system operates.

He added he thinks that even if his estimates are significantly off, UCLA Housing and Hospitality Services loses some revenue from the swipes black market that could be recovered. This could be accomplished by letting a portion of swipes roll over from quarter to quarter or lowering meal plan prices for off-campus students to disincentivize trading and selling swipes, he said.

Over the summer, Kharkar worked on improving the emergency response system in Cincinnati, Ohio, as a fellow for Data Science for Social Good in Chicago. The fellowship is the biggest project he’s undertaken, he said.

“I’m trying to expand bigger and bigger, but campus projects are much closer to my heart,” Kharkar said.

He said he thinks many people who go into mathematics or an engineering field become detached from the social aspect.

“There’s a stigma that social good and a quantitative field like computational stats are incompatible,” Kharkar said. “It’s really asking ‘Will this project impact people’s lives in the future?’ If the answer is yes, then I think it’s worth doing.”

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Catherine Liberty Feliciano is news reporter and a member of the Bruin Editorial Board. She writes stories about Westwood, research and student life. She dabbles in video journalism and frequently writes #ThrowbackThursday blogs. Feliciano was an assistant opinion editor from 2015-16.


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