Jun 16, 2021

The Public Defense Project Wins Inaugural Sarukkai Social Impact Award

A great public defender (PD) should have compassion, empathy, and an unshakeable belief in the bedrock of the United States justice system: that those accused of crimes are presumed innocent until proven guilty. But increasingly, public defenders must also possess the technical skills and resources to deal with the tidal wave of data they now face every day, and they lack the resources and expertise to do so. A School of Information student project hopes to help change this.

The Public Defense Project, the capstone effort of Master of Information Management and Systems (MIMS) students Sneha Chowdhary, Tiffany Pham, Rachel Warren, and Jyen Yiee Wong, seeks to level the playing field for PDs and was recently chosen as the first winner of the Sarukkai Social Impact Award, which recognizes the I School capstone or final project with the greatest potential to solve important social problems and improve people’s lives in meaningful ways.

The project, advised by School of Information Assistant Professor Niloufar Salehi, is a comprehensive dive into the technological inequities and challenges faced by PDs and seeks to address this critical gap in the consequences of data, justice, and representation. The team interviewed over 20 public defenders at both federal and local levels, consulted with information and legal scholars, and partnered with the nonprofit Secure Justice for assistance in addressing the knowledge gaps of PDs in data and emerging technologies.

“We think public defenders are natural partners for privacy advocates and ethical technologists.”
— Rachel Warren (MIMS ’21)

Public defenders have long been burdened by high caseloads and a lack of resources; of the $295 billion dollars spent in the justice system, only 2% goes to public defense. Meanwhile, the complexity of data public defenders must sift through has exploded in the past decade — cell sites, GPS location history, social media postings, body and dashboard cam recordings — it’s become increasingly difficult for PDs to extract, annotate and manage data they need to secure justice for their clients. The I School team sought to understand how PDs currently manage the data in their cases with the hope of identifying both technical and political ways to support their work.

Storyboards on the Public Defense Project website depict the public defender’s experiences. In this example receiving and managing surveillance data. (The Public Defense Project)

“As the four of us started to speak with public defenders,” said Rachel Warren, “we were both impressed by their values and work ethic and also horrified by the unfair way that data is used by prosecutors and law enforcement in the criminal justice system and how needlessly difficult that makes it for public defenders to bring justice to their clients...We think public defenders are natural partners for privacy advocates and ethical technologists and if nothing else I hope this work inspires further collaboration.”

“Much of the discussion about surveillance tends to pin privacy and security as opposing forces and takes the knowledge-making power of surveillance technologies as fact,” Warren explained. “Yet, my experience as a data scientist is that no digital record ever speaks without interpretation. As soon as I started thinking about the criminal justice system as a place where outcomes are determined by competing data-driven narratives, it seemed really important to start investigating how public defenders' challenges in working with data might lead to biased outcomes in the criminal justice system.”

The MIMS student research identified three major needs of PDs:

Working With Novel Surveillance DataPublic defenders are overwhelmed by the volume and complexity of data that characterizes modern criminal cases. They would benefit from technical tools to process and analyze that data for their clients.

Instituting a platform for Information SharingA better network for information sharing between public defenders would be useful in three areas: as a place to share case law examples and resources about new forms of technical and scientific evidence, a place to find and vet experts, and a place to organize around structural problems.

Database ManagementPoor information management systems were a significant blocker for public defenders. Throughout their workflows, they’re forced to interact with disparate databases with overlapping and poorly indexed information about client details, case information, custody status, a client’s criminal history, and court filings.

“The Public Defense Project is an amazing example of UC Berkeley’s Public Interest Technology work.”
— Steve Trush (MIMS ’18)

“The Public Defense Project is an amazing example of UC Berkeley’s Public Interest Technology work,” said Steve Trush, a MIMS ’18 alumnus and board member of Secure Justice. “This project clearly demonstrates how School of Information students continue to harness UC Berkeley’s strengths to address the most important challenges of today and tomorrow alongside the vibrant Bay Area activist community. 

“Secure Justice is grateful for the work of Jyen, Rachel, Tiffany, and Sneha and their dedication to public service over the eighteen months of our partnership. We congratulate them on the recognition of their work and look forward to their continued use of their research talents for social progress. We are excited to put their recommendations into action.”

Last updated:

June 21, 2021