What happens when a public interest technologist joins forces with an organization like the ACLU of Massachusetts? The single largest dismissal of wrongful convictions in U.S. history.
In 2012, Annie Dookhan, a Massachusetts state chemist, was arrested for falsifying results, and forging lab documents while testing drugs. During her tenure, more than 20,000 people were convicted and sentenced for drug crimes based on false evidence. But even after she confessed, the burden was put on the individuals affected, rather than the state, to address the convictions that occurred based on faulty evidence.
That is, until the Open Web Fellowship paired lawyers from the ACLU of Massachusetts’ Criminal Law Reform project with public interest technologist Paola Villarreal.
The fellowship is a collaboration between the Ford Foundation and Mozilla that brings together the best emerging technology talent with civil society organizations to advance justice. And this case desperately needed a technologist, because although the courts had rejected the ACLU’s petition for a mass dismissal of cases, they did have a victory: The lawyers were given access to the number of cases that Dookhan had been involved in.
Data poured in from throughout the state, from different departments and in various formats, totaling more than 24,000 cases that could potentially be dismissed. That’s where Villarreal stepped in. A systems programmer from Mexico City, Villarreal was the Open Web Fellow tasked with turning all these disorganized data sets into a single database that could help the lawyers tell a story and bring justice to the individuals affected.
Collaborations in public interest technology, like the one that saw these wrongful convictions overturned, is a burgeoning area of tech that envisions a world in which technologists like Villarreal can bring their expertise to other sectors, including civil society, to create a more just world. With technological advances outpacing government regulation and legal jurisdiction, public interest tech seeks to ensure technology is designed, deployed, and regulated in a way that protects and improves the lives of people, centering values of equity, inclusion, and accountability where the public interest is at stake.