It’s been a rite of passage for University of Victoria students for decades – the panicked, desperate scramble to find housing before the September semester begins.
One of those UVic students, a computer science PhD student, found his apartment hunting experience so maddening and time consuming, he did what any self-respecting comp-sci guy would do. He wrote a web app to solve the problem.
Jamie Starke, 28, and Lars Grammel, 31, both with UVic’s computer human interaction software engineering lab (CHISEL), have created a web tool that combs through rental service databases and plots those rentals on a street map of Greater Victoria, which also shows all bus routes that serve UVic.
The web app, called the Victoria Rental Map, has slider widgets to customize a search to price, number of bedrooms, shared accommodation, and distance from a bus stop on a UVic route. It updates itself at 6 a.m. every day.
Starke conceived of the idea while apartment hunting with his wife in April. Not deeply familiar with the neighbourhoods of the region and their proximity to UVic, he found it frustrating to search between no less than 21 rental service agencies, plus Craigslist and UsedVictoria for an apartment that fit their budget and needs.
“When I came here two years ago, looking for a place was terrible. This time around I had a better idea about Victoria, but Fairfield versus Fernwood? I get mixed up all the time,” Starke said. “And many times it looked like I found something that looked good with a good price, it was way out in Langford or Sooke.”
Starke teamed up with Grammel, who specializes in mapping visualization tools, and wrote the code to comb through websites and databases for relevant data – price, location, style and number of bedrooms. The information is out there, Starke said, but teasing it from websites was no simple task.
“I decided instead of working four hours a night to find a place to live, I’d work on (the rental map) three hours each night, and only one hour looking for an apartment,” he said laughing.
It worked. The web tool went live in May and his wife used it to successfully zero in on a new home. “We found a nice basement suite that met everything we wanted,” he said. “It was a good sign I was doing something right.”
The Victoria Rental Map remains UVic-centic in terms of bus routes, but Starke plans to add transit lines that will help students attending Royal Roads, the two Camosun College campuses and for the downtown core. And of course, you don’t need to be a student to use the tool.
“My goal is to make it as easy as possible for students so they don’t have to go through all the pain I did originally,” Starke said. “I’m quite happy with the result. It helped me find a place and others are finding it useful. It validates the time we put in.”
Some minor glitches remain – it runs a bit slow on the iPad and doesn’t work at all on older Internet Explorer browsers, but Starke plans on improving the program when he can. There’s no mobile phone app and there probably won’t be.
”That is a lot of work and isn’t planned soon. This is something Lars and I are doing in our free time.”
See victoria.rentalmap.co for the Victoria Rental Map.