Stanford Impact Labs is applying insights gleaned from the social and data sciences to address real-world problems. (Image credit: Getty Images)

A carefully worded letter to help a youth reentering school from the justice system. A text message reminding a released defendant about an upcoming court appearance. A publicly available SMS course showing people how to spot misleading information online.

These are some of the promising interventions Stanford scholars, working in collaboration with local government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and community groups, are testing to address social problems such as recidivism, incarceration, and misinformation in new and innovative ways.

These projects – along with dozens of others – have been funded and supported by Stanford Impact Labs (SIL), an initiative that launched in the 2019-20 academic year as part of the university’s Long-range Vision to help researchers who want their scholarships to serve the public good by using data-driven, social science research to develop actionable ways to address pernicious and pervasive social problems.

“The mission of Stanford Impact Labs is to put social science to work for society through deep and engaged partnerships with leaders in government, nonprofits, and business,” said Jeremy Weinstein, SIL’s founder and faculty director.

Since launching, SIL has provided dozens of fellowships, hosted workshops and forums – including one with the White House – and co-launched a new major to prepare students with the technical skills and practical know-how to tackle these challenges. Another major component of SIL’s work has been investing in a wide range of collaborative research projects at key stages to develop evidence-based solutions that realize individual and social potential. Over four years, SIL has already allocated $20.2M to 32 impact labs working with partners at the local, state, national, and international levels.

“What SIL represents is an ecosystem that supports the path from science to impact beyond the university,” said Weinstein, a professor of political science in the School of Humanities and Sciences. “What we, and a set of our peer institutions, are trying to figure out is what it means to support innovations around social problems with the same intentionality we bring to R&D in life sciences and engineering.”

Working closely with the problem solvers

At the center of SIL’s mission is collaboration: Scholars work closely with practitioners from the public, private, or social sectors who deal with problems firsthand yet may lack the necessary time, resources, or research tools to generate evidence and insights that could help a potential solution gain traction.

SIL recognizes that tangible solutions to stubborn social problems require collaboration across sectors and thus commits to funding and supporting projects that bridge research and practice.

For example, one collaboration SIL first funded in 2020 was between the Computational Policy Lab (CPL) and the Santa Clara County Office of the Public Defender (SCCPDO). The SCCPDO connected with CPL after hearing Sharad Goel speak about how technology can be used to address social problems.

Goel, along with his colleagues at Stanford and the nonprofit group The Bail Project, were developing a tool the SCCPDO wanted to implement: a mobile app that could send reminder messages to public defender clients about their court hearing dates.

Missing a court hearing can come with devastating consequences for a defendant: In some cases, it can lead judges to issue a warrant for the defendant’s arrest, which can lead to added jail time.

If court appearances could be increased, would incarcerations decrease?

SCCPDO and researchers from Stanford and Harvard, where Goel is now a professor of public policy, put the question to the test in a randomized control trial. They discovered that a simple text reminder does make a difference: They were able to reduce arrest warrants for missed court dates by approximately 20% and incarceration resulting from missed hearings dropped from 6.2% in the control group to 4.8% in the treatment condition. Across the roughly 20,000 clients that SCCPDO serves every year, this would translate to several hundred fewer people in jail each year.

In addition, their intervention was a cost-effective way to prevent incarceration: Each text message they sent cost less than a penny; and across the many reminders and responses they received from clients, it cost about 60¢ per case to send reminders.

These findings, which have not yet been peer-reviewed, are detailed in a working paper available on the pre-publication print website, ArXiv.

By collaborating with scholars, the SCCPDO was able to rigorously test one way to lower incarceration rates, measuring impact in a way a technology vendor would likely not provide, said Alex Chohlas-Wood, PhD ’22, the executive director of CPL.

For Chohlas-Wood, whose own research focuses on using technology and data science to support criminal justice reform, working with SCCPDO is an opportunity to make tangible change.

“To be able to connect the dots between the work that we’re doing and seeing actual improvement in outcomes really matters to me,” Chohlas-Wood said.

Realities of implementation

Sometimes, the biggest challenges facing problem-solvers are practical ones. Elegantly designed solutions to a problem might exist but there are obstacles that make them difficult, if not near impossible, to implement.

Scalability is something Carey Courtney, the re-entry coordinator for Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), carefully considers in her work helping students transition out of the juvenile justice system and to school.

Some interventions to help the students Courtney works with can take weeks, if not months, to complete. For example, the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy program that MPS offers to some students has around 30 sessions to it. While effective, solutions like these take a lot of time, as well as lengthy training, to implement.

Moreover, many of the children Courtney works with have lives that are sometimes unstable and often unpredictable, making it hard to deliver consistent care.

Having something widely accessible to implement appealed to Courtney, who was eager to work with Stanford psychologist Greg Walton and his team after learning about his Lifting the Bar (LTB) work through a colleague.

“Sometimes, when we get a new intervention, they are very time-consuming,” Courtney said. “Then we saw this, I thought, ‘Oh! We could actually do this.’”

Unlike some school programs which need to be administered by a licensed professional, the intervention developed by the LBT team requires no special training or skills to implement.

The premise is straightforward: Over one hour, reentering students read and answer questions about what it is like to transition from detention to school, sharing advice for future students. Then they identify a teacher who could be an important source of support for them, and what they would like that person to know about them, their values and goals and schools and challenges they face the teacher might help with. Their responses are then populated into a personalized letter that is sent to that teacher.

As the result of a Stage 2 SIL investment in the LTB team and their partnership with MPS, Courtney has been able to roll out the intervention in her school district. What also appealed to Courtney was how the intervention focuses on the student-teacher relationship.

“It sets up this relationship early on,” Courtney said. “When [a] student feels connected to school and safe adults, they’re less likely to make negative choices, which can lead them back into the juvenile justice system – or at a minimum, keep them out longer.”

Different approaches to have impact

Also central to SIL’s vision is cultivating a community for both scholars and problem solvers to share issues they encounter while implementing solutions-oriented research.

Having a purpose-driven mission towards research is what led Susan Athey, the Economics of Technology Professor at the Graduate Business School (GSB) and founder of the Golub Capital Social Impact Lab to want to become involved with SIL.

Athey recently received Stage 2 funding to build out a project her students helped get off the ground at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to better understand the spread of health-related misinformation. Athey hopes her team’s findings can be expanded into a tool that can be used across different contexts and settings.

“There’s a lot of different ways to have an impact as an academic,” said Athey. “For me, one form of impact is to create case studies that establish the potential for a novel intervention to have meaningful effect.”

Athey has found that her colleagues involved at SIL also share an orientation towards developing research-informed tools that are both scalable and generalizable.

“SIL is a community of people who are really thinking about how to combine research with impact so that you get this multiple-level impact – not just the impact on the people you’re helping, but also the thought leadership and broader impact on how people are approaching these problems,” said Athey.

Small steps leading to big changes

While there have been major advancements across health, science, and policy that have made the world a better place, there are still many issues facing society. Solving social problems is undoubtedly complex, and scholars recognize there is no single, technical fix. Issues are multifaceted and different approaches are needed.

“We have to figure out how to take these complex problems and break them down into tractable pieces and figure out where and how we can make progress and help inspire people that progress is possible,” Weinstein said.

SIL continues to grow. A new set of Stage 2 labs has just been funded, and it is launching a fellowship this year for nonprofit leaders and for local policymakers to come to Stanford and learn new ways to gather data and insights that can be used to meet their social change goals.

Earlier this month, SIL announced the first of two Stage 3 investments it will make this year, the initiative’s biggest and boldest grants yet.

“Social problems exist for many different reasons, and often because there are powerful interests aligned behind the status quo. But I’m unwilling to accept, as are most of my colleagues, the status quo. We believe research can help us find actionable solutions,” Weinstein said.

Stanford Impact Labs is a university-wide initiative established in the School of Humanities and Sciences.