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It’s Valentine’s Day, and at colleges across the country, love is not in the air, but in students’ email inboxes.
That’s because, for the 28th year, students will be able to participate in Datamatch, an online matchmaking service run by their peers. Individuals sign up by providing information on what they’re looking for—friends or lovers, someone similar to them or someone completely different—and answering a list of survey questions that change year to year about their personality, opinions and habits. Then, on Feb. 14, participants are emailed a list of their 10 closest matches with contact information.
Datamatch is available on over 40 campuses in the U.S., Canada and England, though partners on those campuses are mostly just responsible for crafting custom surveys for their university; the website and the algorithm are based at Harvard University, where the program originated. As of Monday evening, over 29,000 individuals had signed up to participate in the 2023 match—and that number was increasing in real time as more users signed up.
This year, according to one of Datamatch’s leads, questions include hyper-recent references to some of the hottest topics of the past year—such as ChatGPT and Maroon 5 front man Adam Levine allegedly cheating on his wife. The matchmaking service also added the option for students to share their astrological sign and Myers-Briggs personality type.
Some questions are specific to individual campuses. At Harvard, a question this year asked what respondents would do if they realized they had an assignment due in an hour that they hadn’t started; one multiple-choice answer read “Transfer to Yale.” Last year, McGill University in Montreal included a question about how users thought Canadian prime minister—and McGill alum—Justin Trudeau spent his weekends at the university. And Northeastern students were asked how they react when it snows over a foot in Boston.
“I think that people have this impression that, somehow, you need to have a lot of really in-depth detail about people in order to figure out what they have in common,” said Chelsea Guo, a Harvard junior studying sociology who leads the business side of Datamatch’s operations. “I kind of don’t believe so. We’ve always wanted to make sure that people just get a chance to meet each other.”
That’s why the Datamatch team added a new component a few years ago to motivate matched students to actually connect in person: free food.
The Harvard team has partnered with local Cambridge restaurants to provide coupons for free food to couples who find each other through Datamatch, funding at least 1,000 dates at 10 local restaurants annually. The money for such dates comes both from corporate sponsorships and from the Harvard Undergraduate Association, the university’s student government.
Other campuses offer similar enticements. The University of Chicago, where Datamatch festivities are hosted by the campus’s humor magazine, The Shady Dealer, partners with restaurants in the surrounding Hyde Park area to offer discounted meals. And the Datamatch team at the University of Wisconsin has held free events, including swing dancing, ice skating and movie nights for its users.
More Than a Club
Datamatch used to be a part of Harvard’s Computer Society, an undergraduate computer science interest club, but it recently broke off to become its own organization.
In total, Guo estimates that 50 to 60 students are on the team. Although Valentine’s Day is their one big annual event, the club works all year to prepare for it. In the fall, the team prepares for the February launch by training new members. Then, starting in the winter, the team gets together for nightly work sessions, which can include anything from writing questions to refining the algorithm to revamping the website.
Students can participate in a number of different ways, working on everything from the web design to restaurant partnerships. Junior Alex Cheng, a Datamatch lead who is a computer science and statistics major, joined the statistics group when he first came on board, drawn to the interesting and sometimes silly data points the website displays for users.
“We are kind of a numbers-focused organization, because we are matching people using an algorithm,” he said. “So it helps people engaged with the website see what happened in years previous.”
Those graphs display such metrics as how students answered the previous year’s survey questions and how often people from certain dorms are paired with each other.
It’s not always sunshine and rainbows; in 2021, the Datamatch team noticed security vulnerabilities in its site and Github repositories that made users’ personal information accessible. Those vulnerabilities have since been fixed, according to Datamatch’s privacy page.
Working on Datamatch is more than a fun extracurricular activity, though. Members of the team say that they expect it will likely be an asset in their future careers, not only because of the technical skills they’ve picked up on the job but also because Datamatch is a real-life project that tens of thousands of people have used.
“I’ve basically mentioned Datamatch in every single one of my interviews for software engineering,” Cheng said.
So—how successful is the matchmaking site?
To answer that question, the team notes that their top goal isn’t necessarily for users to find true love, but for them to connect with someone on campus they might not have otherwise met. Guo described it as “more fun” than other dating apps; both the sign-up process of filling out a goofy survey and the prospect of meeting up for free food allow users to have a more relaxed experience than using, say, Hinge, a dating app that is “designed to be deleted’—meaning it’s intended to help users find the person they’re going to be with forever.
But even by traditional dating app standards, Datamatch’s track record isn’t bad. Its Instagram includes a number of success stories, ranging from loving long-term relationships to pairs who didn’t work out romantically but still text each other memes that are “off the charts.”
Datamatch has cultivated at least one relationship among the staff itself: Cheng met his current girlfriend when she showed up on his list of matches—in the very last spot.