Justice + Poverty Innovation


About the class

Create new solutions for people to navigate housing, medical, and debt problems

How can emerging technologies and human-centered design be used to help people going through problems with housing, medical care, and debt? In this class, we will work with local partners to develop new tech and design prototypes to address poverty-related problems. We will explore new digital solutions, as well as how to use emerging technologies like AI and blockchain. At the same time, we will explore policy and legal reforms that could address root causes of the problems.

Students will work in small, interdisciplinary teams with partners organizations in law, medicine, and policy. They will do design research in the field, propose new solutions and test them, and develop new initiatives that will be piloted. The goal is to incubate promising, feasible public interest technology and design projects.

The class will be run in parallel to similar classes in Mexico, Guatemala, and Colombia. Students will have the chance to learn about similar innovation efforts in other countries, and will be challenged to think about how their own projects could be replicated and scaled.


Project Briefs we are tackling

Other Possible Challenges

How could the justice system prevent poverty rather than exacerbate it?

Based on our conversations with courts, legal aid, and social service providers, there are a number of challenges that student teams might tackle. These common, pressing challenges include the following list — though teams will have the opportunity, through design and policy research, to identify and frame challenge statements of their own.


Predicting Spirals of Problems: 

Can we predict what clusters of problems typically lead to problems in the courts and with poverty — and identify earlier upstream points to intervene? Can we put in preventative services and support in medical clinics, social service clinics, on the Internet, and elsewhere that people are ‘presenting’ problems?

New Strategies to Address Low Quality Debt Collection Cases: 

Can we identify abusive debt collection practices in court filings and elsewhere — to prevent them from harming people through low-quality case filings, default judgments, and wage garnishments? Can we spot practices like sewer service, zombie debts, and robo-signed lawsuits? And if certain states (like New York) have created successful policies and programs, how can we scale these nationwide?

Helping People Know and Use Their Rights: 

Can we empower people to use their housing, employment, and consumer rights — so they can navigate the justice system effectively, and resolve problems they encounter?

Can we help people who can’t afford a lawyer to protect their rights, to be able to strategically navigate court paperwork, hearings, and mediation? Especially if the person is filing for bankruptcy, being evicted from their home, being sued by a debt collector — or otherwise in a financially precarious situation?

Lessening Court Fees + Punishments: 

Can we help them avoid fines and fees from the court as well — by changing court policy and improving people’s ability to navigate the system? If states like California have adopted policies to reduce people’s obligation to pay court and ticket fines, how can it actually be put in practice — so that people know about this option and can use it effectively?

Can there be alternatives to monetary fines — including traffic school, financial coaching, or volunteer service, to lessen the harm of court fines?

Understanding Eviction + Debt Lawsuit Notices: 

When someone arrives home to find a legal notice — an eviction notice, summons or complaint, or notice of a debt collection lawsuit — how do we help them understand what is happening? Can we build a tool or guide to help people make sense of these notices — and then decide how they want to act on it? 

Protection with Employers and Landlords: 

Can we build automated tools to help people manage relationships with their landlords and employers — so they have a better record, ability to document problems, and ability to resolve disputes pre-emptively?

Can we build tools to automatically review housing contracts, employment agreements, and other legal documents — to identify if there are concerning, illegal, or abusive clauses in them?


Tools and Projects for Inspiration



Using Search Engine Big Data to Predict HIV risks https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0199527

Human Trafficking Detection through Sentiment Analysis in online advertisements and web data https://memex.jpl.nasa.gov/GTA2018-Sentiment.pdf

Docassemble, an open source application to create and populate forms, documents, and other legal tasks

Poverty-Fighting Startups: https://www.fastcompany.com/40513626/these-poverty-fighting-startups-are-slaying-silicon-valleys-sacred-cows 




Resources for the class

How the legal system can impact poverty

Serial podcast, Season 3: the criminal justice system + its effects on people caught in it

The podcast documents a year inside a typical American courthouses, profiling the extraordinary stories of ordinary cases in Cuyahoga County in Cleveland, Ohio.

Listen to the 9 episodes through the lens of a design researcher: who are the stakeholders? What are the experience and system breakdowns? Where are there opportunities for new policies, technologies, services, or beyond?

Sign Here to Lose Everything: How a court system becomes a debt-collection machine that chews up small businesses

This November 2018 report from Zachary Mider and Zeke Faux in Bloomberg Businessweek examines how lenders use legal procedure — including New York state’s “confession of judgment” to take borrowers to court, seize their assets, and prevent a borrower from raising any defenses. 

How a Subprime Auto Lender Consumed Detroit with Debt and Turned its Courthouse into a Collections Agency

This October 2018 report from Ryan Felton and Ishaan Jhaveri in Jalopnik profiles how debt collection cases from the company Credit Acceptance have overtaken Michigan’s court system — and led to bankruptcies 

Undue Burden: The Impact of Abusive Debt Collection Practices in Oregon

An April 2018 report from the Center on Responsible Lending about how Oregonians face millions in judgments for debts that lack sufficient documentation to prove their case in court. Just six debt collection companies have filed 75,000 cases, that represents 25% of all civil suits in the state’s circuit courts in the past five years. No consumers win any case, and hardly any have an attorney.

Read more on Debt Collection lawsuits, and how state courts (especially in New York) are trying to prevent the court system from being abused by debt collectors

Aaron Elstein, Debt Collection Lawsuits are Roaring Back With an Old Ruse that Victimizes Borrowers, Crain’s New York Business

New York 2014 Regulations Against Abusive Debt Collection Practices

James C. McKinley, Jr, Top State Judge Tightens Rules on Debt Collection Lawsuits, 2014, New York Times

Life in the Sweatbox

This law review article from Pamela Foohey, Robert Lawless, Katherine Porter, and Deborah Thorne profiles people’s journeys to bankruptcy, and especially in the crisis time before filing — called the ‘sweatbox’. It researches people who are struggling with collection calls, utilities being cut off, too little food, losing their home, and other problems that commonly crop up before a bankruptcy. The researchers find that increasingly people are spending more time — around two years — in the ‘sweatbox’ before filing for bankruptcy.

Data Sets

These are collections of data about poverty, legal needs, court process, and life problems, and other things that might be useful to class projects.

The Justice Gap legal needs report: https://www.lsc.gov/sites/default/files/images/TheJusticeGap-FullReport.pdf Legal Services Corporation, the Congressionally-funded group commissioned a 2017 research study into the most common civil legal needs of people in the US

US Census Poverty Datasetshttps://www.census.gov/topics/income-poverty/poverty/data/datasets.html,

Opportunity Insights Data Libraryhttps://opportunityinsights.org/data/, This data collection has publicly available data about social mobility, exposure to innovation, life expectancy, income, and other factors related to poverty and opportunity.

Eviction Data in the US Library: https://evictionlab.org/map/

Measures for Justice criminal justice system datasets: https://measuresforjustice.org/portal/ 

Maryland Judiciary case data: https://cluesearch.org/ scraped by Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service

Gapminder Data Library: https://www.gapminder.org/data/ 

Rule of Law Indexhttp://data.worldjusticeproject.org/ , The World Justice Project constructs worldwide surveys about people’s legal needs and their ability to use the justice system.

Colombian Government Data on access to justice: http://formularios.dane.gov.co/Anda_4_1/index.php/home 

Background Research + Visualizations on the problem

Who offers help for people facing these justice/poverty problems?

Direct Services to people in California

Consumer Law Clinic in San Mateo County Law Library, Redwood City, every Monday 10am -1pm, from Bay Area Legal Aid

HERA, Housing and Economic Rights Advocates, a statewide non-profit based in the Bay Area, serving all of California, that offers free legal services for all kinds of household financial problems They offer workshops on debt collection defense, financial wellness, consumer issues, credit reports, and more. See their workshop schedule: http://www.heraca.org/workshops/ 

Broader Resources

Financial Coaching at the Center for Financial Security, based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has a great deal of research and materials for financial wellness coaching. This includes trainings, ways to tele-coach, and how to guide people through crises.

Asset Funders network that grants to programs that support economic well-being for all

Readings on Justice, Poverty, and Innovation

Analogies from Public Health Innovation

The promise of innovation and poverty alleviation

Wilkinson, Dave. Data-driven, outcomes-focused government: The value proposition. Summit on Poverty and Opportunity (November 29, 2016). Stanford University.

Burwell, Sylvia, Cecilia Muñoz, John Holdren, and Alan Krueger. Using evidence and innovation to improve government performance. Executive Office of the President.

Chetty, Raj, Mark Duggan, and David B. Grusky. 2016. Using big data to solve social problems. Also see video here.

Ford, Martin, and Tim O’Reilly. 2016. Two contrasting views of the future. Summit on Poverty and Opportunity (November 29, 2016). Stanford University.

Dubner, Stephen J. 2016. Is the world ready for a guaranteed basic income? FreakonomicsRadio (April 13, 2016).

Innovations to improve services + empowerment

Pahlka, Jennifer. 2016. Government for the people. Huffington Post (January 21, 2016).

Daugherty, Lindsay, William R. Johnston, and Tiffany Tsai. 2016. Connecting college students to alternative sources of support. Rand Corporation.

Farrell, Mary, Jared Smith, Leigh Reardon, and Emmi Obara. 2016. Framing the Message: Using Behavioral Economics to Engage TANF Recipients. OPRE Report 2016-02. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Yu, Alice. 2016. Tech in Action to Tackle Homelessness. Summit on Poverty and Opportunity (November 30, 2016). Stanford University.

Innovations to improve access to social capital

Chetty, Raj, and Nathaniel Hendren. 2016. The impacts of neighborhoods on intergenerational mobility I: Childhood exposure effects. Stanford University.

Hurd, Nicole. College Advising Corps. Summit on Poverty and Opportunity (November 29, 2016). Stanford University.

Bernadotte, Alex. Beyond 12. Summit on Poverty and Opportunity (November 29, 2016). Stanford University.

Smith, Megan. Poverty, Opportunity, and Common Ground. Summit on Poverty and Opportunity (November 29, 2016). Stanford University.

Miller, Mauricio Lim. Family Independence Initiative. Summit on Poverty and Opportunity (November 29, 2016). Stanford University.

Innovations to improve job skills and employment opportunities

Stevens, Mitchell, Remaking College.

Kirp, David L. 2017. Text your way to college. New York Times (Jan. 6).

Acemoglu, Daron, David Laibson, and John A. List. “Equalizing superstars: The internet and the democratization of education.” American Economic Review (104:5), pp. 523-27.

Weber, Lauren. 2015. Online skills are hot, but will they land you a job? Wall Street Journal (Nov. 17, 2015).

Mitchell, John, and Anant Agarwal. The future of online education. Summit on Poverty and Opportunity (November 29, 2016). Stanford University.

Katz, Lawrence F., and Alan B. Krueger. 2016. The rise and nature of alternative work arrangements in the United States, 1995-2015. Available on course website. See also summary here.