Creating Tomorrow’s Policy

Eric Liu and Ashely Peake, first-year students in the Social and Engineering Systems (SES) doctoral program at MIT, are interested in studying housing inequality issues.

They are both eager to begin their research.

“During the first year of your PhD, you are taking classes and getting adjusted, but we were very eager to start doing research,” says Liu.

Liu, Peake, and other students had the opportunity to conduct hands-on research at the MIT Policy Hackathon, organized by students from the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) and the Technology and Policy Program (TPP). This interdisciplinary event brings together participants from around the world to find solutions to societal challenges.

“Hack-GPT: Generating the Policy of Tomorrow” was this year’s theme, which aimed to explore the impact of generative AI tools on policy challenges. Dansil Green, a second-year TPP master’s student and co-chair of the event, explained their focus on AI tools and their implications.

After a hybrid event in 2022, this year’s organizers decided to return to a virtual format, allowing more participants and teams to join the hackathon.

“Virtual events enable us to reach more people, including international participants, and reduce costs. We plan to alternate between virtual and in-person events in the future to maximize the benefits of both formats,” says Green.

“When the magic hits”

Liu and Peake participated in the housing challenge category, allowing them to gain research experience in their field of interest.

Peake, who recently joined the SES doctoral program after completing an undergraduate degree in applied math, says, “Although I am already doing housing research, I haven’t had many opportunities to work with actual housing data. It was a great experience to work on a real data problem, collaborate with Eric and other participants, and learn different perspectives.”

Teaming up with Adrian Butterton, a paralegal, and software engineers Hudson Yuen and Ian Chan, Liu and Peake formed the winning team in their category, named “Team Ctrl+Alt+Defeat.” Together, they tackled the issue of the eviction crisis in the United States.

“The scope of the question surprised us, but it motivated us to think about realistic and adaptable solutions. We wanted to create a solution that could be replicated to tackle various problems,” says Peake.

Liu recalls their fast-paced work during the hackathon. “We received our challenge description in the evening, met up at the IDSS building, and within an hour, we had drafted the entire project. Our software engineer partners had a dashboard ready by 1 a.m. The hackathon fosters this rapid and dynamic work environment.”

“Experiencing the magic and seeing things come together reminded us of the part of research that people often don’t talk about. It was a truly amazing experience,” adds Liu.

A fresh perspective

Letizia Bordoli, a senior AI product manager at Veridos, a German-based identity solutions company, emphasizes the benefits of hackathons for fostering innovation and creativity.

Veridos provided a challenge on universal birth registration, and Bordoli highlights the advantage of having participants from different parts of the world, bringing diverse perspectives to existing challenges.

“Many participants had firsthand knowledge of the challenges faced due to the lack of birth registration in their local regions. This fresh perspective energized us to explore new ideas and solutions that we may not have considered before,” says Bordoli.

New frontiers

In addition to the housing and data systems for human rights challenges, this year’s hackathon introduced a health challenge and a new aerospace challenge focused on space for environmental justice.

Dansil Green explains the reasoning behind the environmental justice challenge, saying, “Space-related challenges can be difficult due to proprietary data. However, by focusing on the environmental aspect, we expanded the challenge to include not only space enthusiasts but also those interested in the environment and climate.”

One participant who took on this new challenge was Yassine Elhallaoui, a system test engineer from Norway with expertise in AI solutions and significant experience in the oil and gas industry. Elhallaoui was part of Team EcoEquity, which proposed using satellite data to improve water resiliency for vulnerable communities.

“Previous hackathons I participated in were more technically focused. However, after attending a workshop on policy writing and seeing the solutions and analysis from others, my perspective on hackathons changed. A policy hackathon has the potential to bring about real-world changes,” says Elhallaoui.

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