Harvard hackathon brings practicality to political causes

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Anti-Corruption Tech

Illustration by Stephan Webster

Lawyer, scholar and political activist Larry Lessig spent five years leading the Edmond J. Safra Research Lab at Harvard University in the study of institutional corruption. But he thinks the most useful exercise may have been a weekend project that brought his research fellows and computer hackers together.

“This is one of my biggest mistakes,” Lessig said, introducing the results of the event. “We’ve now discovered this is something we should have been doing every year.”

Legal scholars can spend years or decades researching a topic, then publish an article in the most prominent law reviews and academic journals, only to find the work never reaches public consciousness. In the past the only way to remedy that situation was to get a mainstream news outlet to write about your research.

Now there’s a second option—get computer programmers to build an app based on your work.


Lessig launched the Safra Research Lab in 2010. The academic team had no more than five years to do its research, at which time Lessig would step down and the project would end. But as part of the lab’s closing conference, the Safra Center ran a hackathon, bringing in computer experts to help the academics make practical use of their efforts.

The institute had lots of research and data and wanted to see that research have an impact on the political debate before the group disbanded.

“With Larry stepping down, the next director will bring a different direction and focus,” says William English, event moderator and research director of the lab, “so I think everyone realized we needed to think about what the lab had accomplished. The question now is if we can harness that goodwill and enthusiasm so these projects have some sort of continuing life.”

The hackathon was the brainchild of Brooke Williams, an investigative reporter who is now a fellow for public narrative at Harvard. Around 100 coders, academics, lawyers, physicists, political scientists and journalists gathered at the MIT Media Lab to take part in the event called Hacking iCorruption.

Their projects focused on finding ways to take obscure data and mine it for value on the Internet. For example, Williams’ project, Think Tank Donors Search, is a website that makes it possible to search documents and track donations from foreign governments or corporations to U.S.-based nonprofit think tanks.

“I wanted to make this information available online, but my knowledge of Web design is pretty limited,” she says. “A lot of us had simple problems that required a technical solution, but we had no budget or ability to hire an expert to solve it.”


The biggest challenge for a project like this is getting qualified engineers and programmers interested enough to help. Harvard lawyers have been able to cultivate a relationship with MIT scientists and engineers by finding issues that resonate with the tech crowd.

For example, Dan Miller is a theoretical astrophysicist who admits that, until recently, he had very little interest in terrestrial issues. But when his research project was scheduled to be defunded, he had some time to investigate other interests.

“Astrophysics might not seem related to politics, but I’m interested in questions like nuclear proliferation and climate change,” Miller says. “It seemed clear to me that the root reason these issues aren’t being taken seriously is campaign finance.”

Participants point to the Unearth extension as an example of how a simple program can give life to an otherwise obscure, academic question. The team had long struggled with ways to highlight the influence corporate funding can have on medical research.

Unearth is an add-on or extension for Google’s Chrome browser that automatically highlights information about the funding of a medical study in the popular PubMed online journal from the National Institutes of Health. It was finished and available in the Chrome Web Store before the event was even over. The extension consists of only eight lines of code.

“To the programmers, making the plug-in was a relatively easy thing,” says Miller. “But the academics don’t know how to make it happen. And the coders don’t know anything about conflict-of-interest issues in academic journals.”

Another hackathon creation is WeCott, a social platform that helps people propose and organize boycotts and even accept crowdsourced funding. The platform is hosting boycotts, including a fight for gender-neutral bathrooms.

Organizers say the biggest failing of the hackathon movement is to get projects to have life after the event is over.

“I really don’t know how much life these projects will have going forward,” English says. “Since our work is wrapping up, it will take individuals with initiative to see that these things have life past today.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Anti-Corruption Tech: A Harvard hackathon brings practicality to political causes.”

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