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Credit: Kylie Cooper

Fifty Penn students are taking part in a virtual code-a-thon, hosted by the Perry World House Borders and Boundaries research group, to raise coronavirus relief money.

From June 1 to June 5, participants will help finalize the research group's dataset on border crossings by using Google Earth Pro to record infrastructure — such as buildings, border police, and fences — that is present at international borders. For every correctly-recorded data point, an anonymous benefactor will donate to the Penn Coronavirus Relief Fund

Borders and Boundaries is led by Professor of Law, Political Science and Business Ethics Beth Simmons in collaboration with Rutgers University Professor of Political Science Michael Kenwick, alongside a team of undergraduates, Masters students, and postdocs from both universities.

Kenwick said the research group seeks to understand borders, countries’ border presence, and the ramifications of those borders.

Simmons said the idea for the code-a-thon came to her during the pandemic, as it provides an opportunity of paid work for students who may have lost their jobs or other summer opportunities.

“We thought this was a great opportunity to allow a lot of students to do work for us that would significantly advance our research, that they could do virtually, that they could get paid for, and also we have an anonymous donor who’s going to make a donation if there’s a high productivity and high accuracy,” Simmons said. “So it’s a win-win-win, which we’re thrilled with.” 

Participants earn hourly "Research Assistant" wages of $12. 

2020 College graduate and research assistant Ryan DelGaudio, who has worked on the project for three years, said the research group has been collecting data for years on older border crossings — where a road crosses an international border. The team had materials on more recent roads and crossings, but they didn’t have the chance to go through it before the code-a-thon, Simmons added. 

Since the formation of the idea a month ago, the research group has been in ”full throttle” with handling logistical challenges and developing all the necessary tools to ensure they are getting the best code possible, DelGaudio said. 

The research group also created a training process and set up a live question-and-answer platform for participants who may need support. 

If all goes well, DelGaudio said the group will have plenty of data to work with. Kenwick said the team plans to use statistical analyses and machine learning later this summer to see the present state of borders across the world, and how these borders have changed over time. 

The group is excited to see how the code-a-thon goes and was pleasantly surprised at the student body’s response, as over 200 students signed up to participate. 

“This is really exciting. To my knowledge there’s nothing like it that’s been done before,” DelGaudio said. “It’s eye-opening, really, because it shows how committed Penn undergrads are to learning about the world and bettering their community.”

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