On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 (coronavirus) a pandemic. A few days later, Texas Computer Science (TXCS) students Rithwik Pattikonda and Darshan Bhatta returned home for spring break to their homes in Plano and Irving, respectively. Both witnessed how stores struggled with the surge in customers, and realized that these stores, while providing a necessity, were also breeding grounds for the possible transmission of COVID-19. They decided to take action. On Saturday, March, 14, the two students began developing InStok, a website that allows people to locate and monitor the stock of most-needed items locally and online. At the time this story was written, InStok had been running for three days and according to Pattikonda, already had “around a little over 100,000 users per day.” 

“When we got back from college, we noticed that our parents really struggled with finding certain groceries,” said Pattikonda, noting that after watching the news, they saw how the problem seemed to be on a national level. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states on its Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) page that “the best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus,” and urges people to avoid close contact with one another, grocery stores are seeing an increase in traffic as people stock up on food and other necessities. Many stores are implementing procedures to prevent the transmission of the virus, but social distancing becomes less effective when a crowd of people is gathered in a single place. Pattikonda and Bhatta were worried that shoppers, who may be unable to find an item at one store would then travel to more locations with the hope of finding what they needed—with the unintended side effect of putting more people at risk of catching the virus.   

Pattikonda, a sophomore, and Bhatta, a junior, met in a linear algebra class and became fast friends. Beyond classroom coding assignments, both students enjoyed working on personal projects and were confident that they could find some way to help ameliorate this issue by collaborating. “This is going to be a big problem, even in the future, as more and more coronavirus cases come,” said Bhatta. “We got together and asked ‘What kind of solution can we find to help with this?’” Pattikonda added, “We thought we could really knock [the project] out quickly if we worked together.”

InStok combs through the websites of several stores—such as Walmart, Target, and CVS—and collects information on each store’s approximate inventory.The website then aggregates this data “into one website where people can find all the stores where an item is available.” While the store locations that a user is shown depend on their zip code, Bhatta said that they “wanted to be fair to rural areas,” which may not have many stores nearby, but noted that the range shouldn’t exceed 50 miles. Users can input their desired item and zip code in the search bar, and InStok will produce a list of stores that have the item, along with the disclaimer: “If an item is not on the shelf, it is possibly at the back. If you really need an item, speak to a store associate. Please do not buy more than you need!” 

Pattikonda and Bhatta are hard at work as they continue to improve InStok and add more features. As of now, they’re playing with the idea of adding more stores, implementing a store traffic feature, and including a crowdsourcing function to help communities better find items. In addition, they’ve brought on two more friends to help them as they focus on scaling InStok for national use. InStok’s future is another aspect that the two have been pondering; pointing specifically toward InStok’s inventory-checking function and ability to compare prices, they noted that the technology can be adapted for various situations. “After the pandemic, we hope that it can be useful at higher-demand times, like Black Friday or Christmas where people are really looking for items that may run out,” said Pattikonda. 

You can visit InStok.org to try out the website. For the latest information about campus COVID-19 response measures, please check the University of Texas at Austin’s Coronavirus Updates website.