Hacking iCorruption

On March 27-29, the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and the MIT Civic Media Center co-hosted a multidisciplinary event to fix the systemic, legal corruption that is weakening our public institutions around the world.

Opening Panel and Reception: Friday, March 27, 2015: 6pm – 9pm
Orientation and Hackathon Day 1: Saturday, March 28, 2015: 9am – 6pm
Hackathon Day 2 and Presentations: Sunday, March 29, 2015: 9am – 6pm

Location: MIT Media Lab, Building E14, 3rd Floor Atrium, 75 Amherst Street, Cambridge, MA

small logo - Looking into iCorruptionAbout the event: Hacking iCorruption

Institutions make modern life possible by organizing human interactions on a massive scale. We generally benefit from the incentives, norms, and information that institutions provide. However, if corrupted, institutions can cause grave harm.

"Institutional corruption is manifest when there is a systemic and strategic influence which is legal, or even currently ethical, that undermines the institution’s effectiveness by diverting it from its purpose or weakening its ability to achieve its purpose, including, to the extent relevant to its purpose, weakening either the public’s trust in that institution or the institution’s inherent trustworthiness."
- from "Institutional Corruption, Defined" by Lawrence Lessig.

Hundreds of researchers, journalists, activists, and scholars from a variety of fields have come together at the Lab at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, under the direction of Lawrence Lessig, to investigate, map, and find solutions for institutional corruption around the world.

After five years of research and reporting, we asked for the public's help in translating this work into usable tools for the public. At Hacking iCorruption academics, journalists, designers, coders, and activists came together to build tools that will have a real impact in arenas from pharma to academia to Wall Street to K Street.

These projects will be showcased at our upcoming Ending Institutional Corruption Conference at Harvard Law School on May 2.

Learn more about iCorruption


 small logo - Looking into iCorruptionHackathon projects (view on hackpad)


Team: CampaignCon (Tied for 3rd Place Winner!)
Project Description: CampaignCon focuses on how campaign contributions change over time, in both the long-term and the near-term. Former Lab Fellow Paul Jorgensen's research shows that, in some cases, the FEC has deleted millions of dollars of campaign contributions. Tracking revisions to FEC records is crucial to maintaining the integrity of our data on campaign finance. To help solve this problem, CampaignCon has built a pipeline that pulls the latest FEC records on individual campaign contributions, compares those records to previous versions, highlights the differences, and archives the source FEC files. This tool will help users identify instances in which revisions occur and how they impact campaigns. The team is also developing concepts for visualizing long-term changes in campaign finance.
Presentation: https://db.tt/xRm7BX8s
Demos: Relevant 2014 funders and recipients: http://julyfour.us/2014/
FEC file modifications: http://dmil.github.io/iCorruptionHack/
Team Members: Nathan Maddix, Dhrumil Mehta, Bruce Skarin, Max Dunitz, Perihan Ersoy, Ari Roshko, James D'Angelo, Al Johri
Lab Fellow: Paul Jorgensen

Team: Schoolhouse Ethics
Project Description: Annual ethics training for congressional staff has been in place for eight years. The training is currently provided on a proprietary web conferencing platform, with no options for a discussion or feedback. The question of this project is both painfully simple and complex: How can we improve the U.S. House of Representatives annual ethics training for congressional staff?  Schoolhouse Ethics piloted an alternative to the current proprietary method. The solution is to use OpenEDx, an open source massive open online course (MOOC), that could reduce costs, provide more interactivity, allow for feedback, enable robust analytics, and promote discussion.
Presentation: https://db.tt/mFHVvXtf
Demo: https://www.sandbox.edx.org/courses/MITiCorruption/House101/2015_T1/about
Team Members: Marcelo DeCastro, Carl Spagnoli
Lab Fellow: Robert Lucas

Team: BillFinity
Project Description: BillFinity is a tool to help hold representatives accountable to their constituents. A number of influences, including campaign donations, lobbying, and other private interests, can sway a legislator from representing the true will of the people, but even the most well-intentioned representatives lack a clear, comprehensive way of determining where their constituency's values lie. BillFinity fosters citizen participation by allowing constituents to view the legislation that matters to them and to compare their ideological viewpoints on social and fiscal axes with those of their representatives. Representatives will have a better understanding of their constituency, and voters will have a better metric for understanding whether their representatives are representing them.
Presentation: https://prezi.com/xc0suxj2dc_n/billfinity/
Team Members: Nick Mastronardi, Tim Booher, Don Kahn, Mark Coyne, Lia Mastronardi, Dylan Cooper, Kyle Rivers, Adam Rosszay, Leo Blondel, Juan Mena, Betty Lo, Kris Gosselin


Team: WeCott (2nd Place Winner!)
Project Description: WeCott is a social platform for boycotts that aims to crowdsource ethical consumerism and lower the transaction costs associated with boycotting. Through the WeCott app, people can create boycotts and invite others to participate. The platform also crowdsources information such as boycott proposals, alternative businesses, and the amount of money WeCott members have spent elsewhere over the duration of the boycott.
Presentation: https://db.tt/irJNX8Hm
Demo: http://wecott.csail.mit.edu
Team Members: Amy Zhang, Daniel Zhao, Joseph Schiavone, Richard He

Team: MuniMining
Project Description: MuniMining is a means to free data locked in PDF files so that it can be easily downloaded for analysis and comparison. The tool was built in response to a need to compile and analyze data on Community Development Authorities, but it has applicability for a whole range of bond issues on the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board website. Using this tool, scholars and community members will be able to better uncover information on municipal bonds and shine a light on the financial products created and sold by Wall Street.
Presentation: https://db.tt/ld08tZQ0
Team Members: Jeff Keeling, J. Adrian Zimmer, Shane Runquist
Lab Fellow: Mary Bathory Vidaver

Project Description: There is ample evidence that bankers often collude to manipulate the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). Because banks are not required to make their transaction prices public, the interbank offered rate is calculated by asking banks to report the rate at which they would borrow; this produces a system that is easily gamed. LIBOR Alt Repair is an alternative benchmark interest rate based on the closest available public data that is of comparable term and risk category. On this website, the public would be able to view the benchmark interest rate for the current day.
Presentation: https://db.tt/iDmelSoQ
Demo: http://qdo050.wix.com/liborrepair
Team Members: Naushard Cader, James Butler, Quan Do, Mike Dombroski, Attila Ferruchi, John Heyer
Lab Fellow: Katherine Silz Carson


Team: Unearth (1st Place Winner!)
Project Description: Funding and disclosure information for biomedical studies is often buried at the end of medical journal articles. This makes it difficult and unwieldy for healthcare professionals to access this information as they make prescribing decisions. Studies have shown that funded studies are often biased in their findings and that knowledge of funding information for these studies has a significant impact on physician prescribing behavior. Unearth is a browser extension (available for free download) that fetches conflict-of-interest and industry funding information from biomedical journal articles and places them at the top of abstracts within PubMed (when available)
Presentation: https://youtu.be/2jjMeHn29Yk
Chrome Extension: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/unearth/nlgekenmjhflbaohkglefe...
Team Members: Alexandra Horeanopoulos, Alisa Nguyen, Avery Dao, Alex Chen, Diana Nguyen, Marco Gentili, Steven Cooke
Lab Fellow: Christopher Robertson

Team: OpenPharma

Project Description: Lab Fellow Jennifer Miller has created an index that ranks the twenty largest pharmaceutical and biotech companies, as well as all new medicines and vaccines, on critical ethics, public health, and human rights issues. The first pilot of this index, which ranks companies and medicines on their transparency in disclosing clinical trial information, is complete. OpenPharma is a system designed to automate the data collection for the index, allowing this important work to be done in a time-efficient manner. The team is now moving forward to think about how to visualize the ranking results.
Presentation: <Posting delayed until affiliated article submitted for publication>
Team Members: Sisi Ni, Rhonda Phillips, David Mascarenas, Arjun Ramaswamy, Sandesh Iyer, and Santiago
Lab Fellow: Jennifer Miller


Team: ThinkTankDonors.org (Tied for 3rd Place Winner!)
Project Description: Thinktankdonors.org is a groundbreaking website that, for the first time, enables the public to search and explore donations from foreign governments and entities, such as state-controlled oil companies, to nonprofit think tanks. Situated in the beltway, some think tanks are a key part of coordinated lobbying efforts and often impact public policy outcomes that affect our day-to-day lives. However, as journalism fellow Brooke Williams co-reported in The New York Times, "policy makers who rely on think tanks are often unaware of the role of foreign governments in funding the research." Thinktankdonors.org enables lawmakers, journalists, and others to see these financial connections and find out about potential conflicts of interest--even on the fly, using their mobile devices during congressional hearings, press conferences or other events. The website and its mobile version are searchable by country and/or think tank. They also include the first-ever searchable repository of Truth in Testimony disclosures since the House passed a rule—proposed in response to the Times article—requiring those who testify before Congress to disclose certain foreign government funding. Notably, the website provides the infrastructure for releasing the next several rounds of Williams' think tanks donor data showing contributions from corporations, foundations and others.
Demo: http://thinktankdonors.org
Team Members: John Muldoon, Soraya Okuda, Joe Uchill, Shawn Musgrave, Dhrumil Mehta, and Yanzhou Chen
Lab Fellow: Brooke Williams

Team: ProfessorCert
Project Description: ProfessorCert is a website based on the Academic Independence Project at the Edmond J. Safra Research Lab. The project grants certification licenses to academics whose work is free from industry bias. Via this tool, academics have two certification options: a personalized log-in gained through the creation of a profile and an in-depth disclosure non-bias survey, or a more general one obtained by answering highly generalized questions. Upon completing this, academics receive an embed link with a certificate from the Academic Independence Project. This certificate can be integrated into research profiles, personal profiles, and academic websites.
Presentation: https://db.tt.xRm7BX8s
Demo: http://professorcert.co.nf/?page_id=10
Team Member
: Nikin Tharan
Lab Staff: Sujay Tyle

small logo - Looking into iCorruptioniCorruption Overview

Regular corruption:

  • quid pro quo
  • tit for tat
  • bribery
  • results in jail


influences that shift priorities away from the institution’s intended purpose

  • weakening the organization
  • weakening the public trust

But legal (e.g. campaign contributions)


Person being pulled by large magnet -- Improper influence

Modern civilization depends on a host of social institutions that enable individuals to interact with others in ways that are conducive to prosperity, freedom, and justice. Institutions create rules, often backed by penalties or incentives, which encourage individuals to act in ways that are consistent with some public good. From politics, to complex bodies that govern medicine and finance, to schools -- institutions organize people and, in so doing, exercise immense power.

However, such power is not always exercised for good. Institutions can be corrupted by influences that compromise the larger social purposes that those institutions are meant to serve. Organizational weaknesses can be strategically exploited for personal gain, such as restricting privileges and economic benefits to family/friends/allies. Psychological biases can negatively influence decision procedures. Individuals can be tempted to cut corners or make compromises under pressure, in ways that are innocuous when taken alone, but disastrous when aggregated. Incentives can become systematically misaligned, leading to perverse consequences. And good people can become trapped within systems that make it difficult for them to do the right thing.

One of the basic tenets of iCorruption is “improper dependence” or influence – where the institutions (and the individuals within their systems) are not working for the proper goals. For example, Congress is dependent upon the tiniest fraction of the 1% to fund its campaigns. Do they represent the rest of us? Medical journals and researchers are dependent upon Big Pharma advertisers to fund and publish their research. Can they be unbiased in what they publish when favorable research on a drug may mean billions of dollars for the company? Government finance regulators should be working for the people. Are they instead making decisions to please Wall Street because there is a high-paying job waiting at the end of their government tenure? (e.g. "revolving door")

For a more complete description, read "Institutional Corruption, Defined" by Lawrence Lessig.

(More on Twitter: #iCorruption)

small logo - Looking into iCorruptionFull Schedule and Opening Panel Details

Friday, March 27

  • 6:00 PM: Opening panel
  • 7:30 PM: Social

Saturday, March 28

  • 9:00 AM: Breakfast and Registration
  • 9:30 AM: Orientation
  • 10:30 AM: Team formation
  • 11:00 AM: Start hacking!
  • 12:00 PM: Lunch
  • 6:00 PM: Official end of day
  • 8:00 PM: Doors close

Sunday, March 29

  • 9:00 AM: Breakfast and announcements
  • 9:30 AM: Hacking recommences
  • 12:00 PM: Lunch
  • 3:00 PM: Submission deadline
  • 3:30 PM: Project presentations
  • 5:00 PM: Judges deliberate
  • 5:30 PM: Winner(s) announced!
  • 6:00 PM: End of event

Opening Night Panelists:

  • William English, Research Director, Edmond J. Safra Research Lab
  • Jennifer Miller, a George C. Lamb, Jr. Regulatory Fellow, Kenan Institute for Ethics, Duke University
  • Malcolm Salter, James J. Hill Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus, Harvard Business School
  • Brooke Williams, Investigative Journalism Fellow at Project on Public Narrative, Harvard University

MIT Media Lab, Building E14, 3rd Floor Atrium, 75 Amherst Street, Cambridge


  • Laura Amico, Editor, Data and Multimedia Projects, The Boston Globe
  • Matt Carroll, Research Scientist, MIT Center for Civic Media
  • Catherine Cloutier, Data Journalist, The Boston Globe
  • Archon Fung, Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship, Harvard Kennedy School
  • Francesca Gino, Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School
  • Ann Marie Lipinski, Curator, Nieman Foundation for Journalism, Harvard University
  • Nadeem Mazen, Cambridge City Council Member

Judging criteria

    Projects were evaluated using the following criteria:

  •  Applicability: Does the project clearly address/mitigate a problem of institutional corruption?
  • Necessity/Impact: Is the problem being solved clearly defined, and is the proposed solution likely to strengthen one or more specific public institutions?
  • Practicality: Is the implementation of the solution technically, institutionally, and financially feasible in the near term?
  • Openness/Replication: How portable and translatable is the solution to other challenges and/or other institutions? If the solution is technical, how open source and accessible (forkable) is the source code?
  •  Accessibility: Is the solution user-friendly and something that will get adopted by the community it is intended to serve?

Hacking iCorruption

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