Software Engineers Team Up with Sociologists for Criminal Justice Reform

Social science that uses qualitative research methods is ideal for understanding complex social and political processes that contribute to pressing societal issues. But this type of research is limited by the time-consuming process of manually collecting and analyzing qualitative data. To address this problem, sociologists at Boston University (BU) and the University of Denver joined forces with software engineers at BU to study the complex issue of criminal justice reform across the United States.

The project, led by Hariri Institute steering committee member Heather Schoenfeld, Associate Professor in Sociology at BU, and Michael Campbell, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Denver, was recently awarded a grant from the Russell Sage Foundation.

Recent calls for criminal justice reform in the United States have had varying degrees of success. The disparate responses of states sparked Schoenfeld and Campbell to question what factors can lead to significant penal reform. To investigate their question, the team conducted interviews with people involved in the policy process including legislatures, lawyers, advocates, lobbyists, and grassroots organizers for criminal justice reform in six different states. Their dataset includes many different types of data, ranging from interview information to legislative data on proposed or passed bills. “What we want to do is be really innovative, in the sense that this is a qualitative project with a very large dataset,” said Schoenfeld.

Heather Schoenfeld, Associate Professor in Sociology at BU, worked with SAIL to optimize the functionality of a database for studying penal reform.

Schoenfeld and Campbell are both committed to reducing prison populations at the state level and hope that their vast dataset can help advocacy organizations. For example, the researchers are examining whether recent criminal justice reform measures in some states, like Georgia, were passed because new organizations sprang into action or because existing groups of people could take advantage of new political opportunities.

But the size of the project made it difficult to sort through and analyze data–the team needed to optimize the functionality of their database. “Because we are social science researchers with smaller budgets, there was no way for us to hire an outside team to create something and we didn’t have the software skills to develop something on our own,” said Schoenfeld. Schoenfeld knew that the Software & Application Innovation Lab (SAIL) at the Hariri Institute could provide the software engineering skills and resources needed to improve the relational database’s web platform.

During the Summer of 2019, Arezoo Sadeghi and another former SAIL software engineer worked to enhance the analytical and administrative capabilities of the web platform for the sociologists’ data analysis. “We actually introduced a new dimension to their analysis by adding many new aggregated data analysis features to the platform that generate data summaries for the users,” said Sadeghi, a software engineer at SAIL that worked on the project as a SAIL intern. To add the new functionality to the database, Sadeghi needed to become intimately familiar with the dataset and learn how the researchers’ data related to the actual qualitative information collected from outside sources, like legal documents. This large, complicated dataset was challenging to work with, but the team at SAIL was excited about the opportunity. “Working with different faculty members coming from different backgrounds is something that is always so interesting and exciting to me,” said Sadeghi, “That’s what makes working at SAIL very rewarding and unique.”

Arezoo Sadeghi and another former SAIL software engineer worked to enhance the analytical and administrative capabilities of the web platform for the sociologists’ data analysis.

The new web-based platform systematizes the team’s data collection process and allows researchers, including collaborators across the country, to easily code and query qualitative data to investigate why criminal justice reform advocates have seen successes in some states but not others. The platform’s enhanced capabilities also enable the researchers to easily compare large amounts of data across multiple states. Through case studies of six U.S. states, Schoenfeld and Campbell hope to better understand how to ignite policy changes in the criminal justice system.

In today’s data-driven world, researchers from the social sciences and computational sciences can investigate complex problems, like penal reform, by working together. SAIL is one mechanism by which the Hariri Institute can break down research barriers to produce transformative, impactful research.

This article was originally posted on Hariri Institute News here.

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