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Using Technology to Balance the Scales of Justice

Hiraa Khan (MPP ‘13) discusses the launch of CrowdDefend, a crowdfunding website dedicated to balancing the scales of justice.

Using Technology to Balance the Scales of Justice

Tell us a little bit about CrowdDefend - what is its main platform and what goals is it ultimately trying to achieve?

CrowdDefend is a crowdfunding platform exclusively for the legal space. Our mission is to help expand access to justice for individuals, organizations, and businesses that can’t otherwise afford to hire counsel to defend or prosecute a case. For launch we are working with some of the top legal aid organizations from across the country to help them raise funds for impactful, socially motivated legal cases.

How does its platform differ from those of other crowdfunding projects?

CrowdDefend is focused on building a community of individuals and organizations that are committed to creating and expanding access to justice. Many crowdfunding sites are general venues for fundraising, without any specific view point or social mission, while others are focused on specialized verticals, like medical services, arts, or the sciences. We are one of the first focusing on legal matters.

How did you come to conceptualize CrowdDefend?

While there are a number of problems with our justice system we have set out to tackle one of the major ones—access to capital.  We rely on our justice system to secure the rule of law for all citizens, regardless of age, gender, race, or socio-economic status, in issues small and large. However, far too often ordinary people are denied access to the courts because of lack of access to capital. The prohibitive costs of legal representation, court fees, associated trial costs can exclude most lower and middle income Americans from participating in the justice system. This results in an astonishingly high number of legitimate legal matters that never make it to the courtroom.

The question we were trying to answer was—How can we help fund legal causes? For us the answer was to build a platform that allowed people to share their real life stories through narration, videos, and images, and solicit contributions from people that wanted to see recourse for that issue.

Have you had any previous experience with projects similar to CrowdDefend? If so, what other programs have you been involved in?

After graduating from UC Berkeley as an undergraduate, I served on the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California’s Board of Directors for about three years. As part of the Board I saw first hand how incredibly hard it was for ordinary citizens to get legal advice, a day in court, or a fair trial if they did not have the capital necessary to hire an attorney. While serving on the Board I was also working full-time at Google where I saw firsthand the power of technology for social good.

Most recently, after graduating from GSPP in 2013, I founded a mobile giving app, called GiveMob. GiveMob, a nonprofit, makes it easy for individuals to donate small dollar amounts to nonprofits. My experience with building and launching GiveMob not only helped me to better understand the technical development process, but also helped me understand how people think about giving and contributing to social causes.

How has your time at GSPP influenced and/or shaped your approach to influencing policy?

My time at GSPP taught me to be detailed oriented, while also thinking about the big picture. A lot of what we think about at GSPP is about broad social welfare, but a lot of what we learn in the classrooms involves the nuts and bolts of making that happen. More specifically, some of the quantitative coursework really helped me gain an appreciation for the use of data in my work.

What piece of advice can you give to prospective and/or current GSPP students?

The University of California, Berkeley has a long history of social innovation. Tap into the classes and seminars at the various graduate programs, including Goldman, I-School, and Haas, that help foster and promote innovation.

Also, in graduate school you’re going to delve into some pretty complex issues. As you approach them don’t be scared to imagine solutions that can help solve, what may even seem like even a tiny slice of, that problem. At CrowdDefend we realize that lack of access to justice is a complex, global problem, but we also believe that our platform can be a helpful resource for some subset of the population that is grappling with the issue.