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Two RECAP Grants Awarded in Memory of Aaron Swartz

2013 April 2
by citp

In memory of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, Think Computer Foundation (http://www.thinkcomputer.org) and the Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP) at Princeton University (http://citp.princeton.edu) are announcing the winners of two $5,000 grant awards for improving RECAP.

Since 2009, a team of researchers at Princeton has worked on a web browser-based system known as RECAP (http://recapthelaw.org) that allows citizens to recapture public court records from the federal government’s official PACER database. The Administrative Office of the Courts charges per-page user fees for PACER documents, which makes it expensive to access these public records. RECAP allows users to easily share the records that they purchase to and freely access documents that others have already purchased.

Shortly after the unexpected death of Mr. Swartz, Think Computer Foundation announced that it would fund grants worth $5,000 each to extend RECAP and make use of data contained in Think Computer Foundation’s PlainSite database of legal information.

Two of these grants are being awarded today.

Ka-Ping Yee, a Canadian software developer living in Northern California, has created a version of RECAP for Google’s Chrome browser. This gives RECAP a much larger base of potential users. Previously, RECAP had only been available for the Mozilla Firefox browser. The RECAP Chrome extension can be downloaded at recapthelaw.org.

Filippo Valsorda and Alessio Palmero Aprosio, both from Italy, have improved RECAP to support the version of PACER used by the U.S. appellate courts. This new functionality helps to dramatically expand the scope of citizens’ free access to United States case law. This improved Firefox version of the extension is also available at recapthelaw.org, and appellate functionality will be available soon for Chrome as well.

These awards recognize work that furthers Swartz’s ideals of information freedom and openness. The remaining grant involves visualizing data available on Think Computer Foundation’s PlainSite web site (the deadline for which has been extended to May 31, 2013 as work on PlainSite continues).

About the Grant Winners

RECAP for Google Chrome – Ka-Ping Yee

The Chrome version of RECAP was developed by Ka-Ping Yee (@zestyping), a founding member of the Crisis Response team at Google.org, where he participated in responses to the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the Tohoku earthquake in 2011, and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Today, he is the lead engineer for Google Crisis Map and Google Person Finder, and he also creates interactive LED art and plays the piano. Ping is from Winnipeg and now lives in Berkeley. He says: “Aaron was a friend, and I was powerfully affected by his passing. His life’s work embodied many of the ideals I have long supported. I was disappointed in myself that I hadn’t done much to further these causes, and the grants gave me the opportunity to turn a time of great sadness into a useful contribution. RECAP corrects an injustice; I was glad I could help. I intend to donate the award to GiveWell in Aaron’s memory.”

RECAP for the U.S. Courts of Appeals – Filippo Valsorda and Alessio Palmero Aprosio

The appellate version of RECAP was developed by a team of two Italian programmers, Filippo Valsorda and Alessio Palmero Aprosio.

Filippo (@FiloSottile) is a high school student and has been programming for about 7 years, focusing recently on cryptography and security. He loves math, and was part of the Italian team at the International Mathematical Game Championship. He has also recently claimed a bounty in the Facebook Bug Bounty program. He says “[a]t the time of the grants announcement I was quite shocked by Aaron’s suicide, and I found out [that] I was working (unknowingly) on a project started by him. So it felt good to play a role in fixing something that he fought for. The competition was also interesting from a technical point of view. While working on the project, we also got a feel of how the PACER system is unjust and broken when we were fool enough to make a search for “Smith” and got billed $25 without any warning.”

Alessio Palmero Aprosio is a Ph.D. student at Fondazione Bruno Kessler in Trento, where he is working on computational linguistics, machine learning and the semantic web. He says: “I think that for documents to be truly public, they must be available on the web for free. The competition was a good way to help a community. As I’m not a U.S. citizen, I don’t know the issue in detail. However, I worked a lot in the IT field, where I learned that technology can help improve many areas. That was true in this case, so I felt that we must fight for this cause. The very fact that we are talking about Aaron means that his projects have not been forgotten, and he would be happy about that. He fought to make PACER publicly available, so I think that he would have approved of the grants. Onward!”

About Think Computer Foundation

Think Computer Foundation is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization with a stated mission of helping children through technology. Its PlainSite legal information database, developed in conjunction with its for-profit sister company, Think Computer Corporation, has greatly expanded access to public information on-line. PlainSite will immediately make use of the additional data available from RECAP, which will be stored in the public domain on the Internet Archive. PlainSite can be found at http://www.plainsite.org.

For more information about Think Computer Foundation, visit http://www.thinkcomputer.org.

About Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy

The Center for Information Technology Policy is an interdisciplinary center at Princeton University. CITP is a nexus of expertise in technology, engineering, public policy, and the social sciences. In keeping with the strong University tradition of service, the Center’s research, teaching, and events address digital technologies as they interact with society.

For more information about RECAP, or to download the Firefox RECAP plug-in, visit http://www.recapthelaw.org.

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