Coding for a cause

As the viral pandemic shuttered campus and disrupted routines, The Borders and Boundaries Project turned the challenging situation into a chance to give back and get work done.

Satellite image of earth with borders highlighted in color
This satellite image of Earth created by the Borders and Boundaries Project shows colored borders indicating the intensity of official state presence.

As the viral pandemic emptied campus and forced students and faculty to readjust their routines this spring, one research group at Perry World House (PWH) turned the challenging situation into a chance to give back and get lots of crucial work done at the same time.

The Borders and Boundaries Project researches how political life both affects and is affected by international borders and border-security policies. A key part of the work is creating a first-of-its-kind, global, satellite-generated database of major border crossings. After the pandemic hit, the project team took some time to transition their work online.

“A lot of students had a gap in their ability to concentrate on their work, naturally, as they moved into new living situations and tried to get settled,” says Beth Simmons, the Andrea Mitchell University Professor in Law, Political Science, and Business Ethics who heads the project. “I realized that a lot of my students had lost on-campus jobs. Many of them had plans disrupted. They were looking not only to finish their classes but to find some kind of the project to take up.”

That’s when Simmons came up with Code for a Cause. She called up her co-project leader Michael Kenwick, a political scientist at Rutgers University.

“I told him I had an idea for how we could finish all our coding in one week. And he said, ‘I’m all ears,’” Simmons says.

The idea was to recruit large numbers of Penn students who needed a job and get them set up to help code the border crossings. Simmons publicized the event during an online talk she gave to about 2,000 students, and PWH sent out announcements about the job opportunity.

An anonymous donor stepped up to commit $10,000 to the Penn COVID-19 Relief Fund if enough data were collected during the five-day event that was accurate and usable, Simmons says. After protests erupted over the killings of Blacks by police, the team asked the donor to commit some of the funds to racial justice organizations as well. The donor agreed.

About 200 students expressed interest in the June 1 event, and by the time code-a-thon was set to launch, 50 students were trained and on board, representing a range of majors from nursing to engineering to English. Most had no previous experience coding, and some weren’t even familiar with Google Earth, Simmons says.

“We made zero requirements that they know anything about international borders or international border crossings,” says Simmons. “We allowed anybody who had a Penn ID, no questions asked.” The only requirement is that participants had to pass training with the coding instrument prior to participation.

The new coders earned $12 an hour for 20 hours over five days, using pre-existing latitude and longitude coordinates in Google Earth to find satellite images of the remaining border crossings. Coders followed the team’s protocol for coding structures like barriers, buildings, and inspection areas at each crossing and recorded the results.

Laptop screen showing a satellite image of an area in Spain.
An image of the coding platform used to track border infrastructure in the Code for a Cause event in June. (Image: Kareena Pamani)

The challenge was to train the new coders, create a way for them to easily log their findings and provide support when questions inevitably arose.

That’s where the tight-knit Borders and Boundaries student team came in. The members functioned as on-site experts during the event, and their planning in the month ahead of the code-a-thon helped make it a success.

“I was a little bit hesitant when I first heard about this. I thought that there was going to be just a lot of room for error,” says Ryan DelGaudio, who graduated in May with a degree in European history and public policy.  “But the event ran really smoothly. It was a great experience.”

DelGaudio worked with team member Jamie Wang to translate the team’s coding tool from an Excel sheet to a Qualtrics survey.

Rising sophomore Adalyn Richards was intrigued by Simmons’ code-a-thon pitch this spring. Richards, from Denver, Colo., hasn’t declared a major yet but is leaning toward political science with Spanish and Portuguese minors. 

“My classes are pretty reading and writing heavy, and I don’t know any coding languages. I couldn’t even build a website,” she says. “I was a bit intimidated by the name of the event because I obviously haven't coded.”

She says the training prepared her to succeed in the event, and the whole project taught her more than she expected, about politics and how to use different technology.

“For example, in the Schengen area of Europe I didn't know that all states agreed to have completely open borders and remove all border control facilities. I learned a lot about relationships between different countries,” she says. “The event definitely inspired me to get involved in research next year.”

Fellow participant Beatrize Stephen-Pons, who recently graduated with a degree in economics and English, had some exposure to programming and thought the event could help her gain coding knowledge.

Not only was that true, she says, but she also noticed patterns within and between regions of the world.

Side view of person sitting on a couch crossed-legged using a laptop.
Beatrize Stephen-Pons, who graduated in May with a degree in economics and English, works on the Code for a Cause event from her couch in June. (Image: Beatrize Stephen-Pons).

“I learned about particular countries and their neighbors through trends in their infrastructure development, geographical data, and photographs taken by residents and visitors,” she says. “For borders between countries that I found particularly interesting, I often would read up on the history of the relationship between those two countries.”

Borders and Boundaries student team member Dillon Horwitz, who graduated in May with a degree in architecture, worked as an on-call expert during the event, monitoring the site where coders left questions and responding in real time. He also created a guide for the coders and walked them through how to code for what the team was looking for.

“Not only was the event a success, I think we also kind of have a blueprint moving forward, in case the team wants to have an event like this again, where we crunch a lot of data at once. I think we actually came up with a pretty good system for onboarding people who didn’t have much experience going through data, teaching them how to accurately code it, and then processing a lot of data,” Horwitz says.

For B&B team member Jamie Wang, a rising senior at Wharton from suburban Atlanta majoring in finance and strategic management, the project and the event gave her a better appreciation of how much work goes into research and data collection in general, she says. “I came to the realization that like a lot of papers that you read or information that people gain comes from just a lot of hard work and good data collection,” she says. “It led me to appreciate research a lot more.”

Justin Melnick, who just graduated with a degree in international relations, economics and statistics, did all the back-end processing of data and assignments, aggregating responses and doing quality control.

“Beyond the incredible work of the borders project as a whole. I think that this ‘Code for a Cause’ was really valuable, both in its message and its ability to contribute to important philanthropic causes right now,” Melnick says. “It was an incredible way to get people together and an interesting experiment in crowdsourcing research and how collaborative research is one of the best ways to understand things about the world.”

And it was a success. They coders logged more than 1,000 border crossings, and the data were accurate and usable, meeting the donor’s criteria. In addition to the COVID-19 Relief Fund, the donor contributed to five racial-justice organizations, Simmons says. The data will help Simmons’s eventual goal of writing a book probing the politics, economics, and social anxieties behind international border “thickening,” or regulations and costs associated with slow-downs at inter-country frontiers.

“It was a triple win,” Simmons says of the coding event. “We doubled the size of our data set, put thousands of dollars into students' pockets, and wewere able to entice a donor to make that donation as well.”