UCL and IBM collaborated for a hackathon that brought computer scientists together with digital humanitarians, delivering new meaning to the works of philosopher and social reformer, Jeremy Bentham.

Transcribe Bentham is part of the wider Bentham Project bringing together a new edition of the works and correspondence of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Bentham was a philosopher, jurist, social reformer, the initiator of modern utilitarianism and seen by many as a founding father of UCL. Producing a new edition of Bentham’s works is particularly important given the significant influence of his thought. The incomplete way in which his works have been previously published gives the project added urgency; his work holds relevance today, yet a vast majority of it has not been properly accessible to date.

Transcribe Bentham involved transcribing, analysing and unpicking some 100,000 pages of Bentham’s manuscripts. However, a digital element to this work was desperately needed if Bentham’s works were to become tangibly useful and digitally searchable. A research project that spanned disciplines from humanities to computer science, creating digital value from Bentham’s work was an ideal project for UCL and IBM to collaborate on. UCL and IBM have a long-standing strategic partnership, but this was the first initiative of its kind for the university and the technology company.

“Prior to the hackathon, the UCL research team had been trying to find a solution for four years. Yet over a single weekend, amazing progress was made. Collaborations like this – done properly – can be very convincing.” Simon Baker, IBM Developer Advocate

As a result, the Transcribe Bentham hackathon came into fruition. Stakeholders from both UCL and IBM planned the event together, defining the business problem and objectives. Essentially, there was a huge amount of data available from the UCL research team, which required digital platforms to interpret it. In turn, this would give the data opportunities for real-life usage, meaning and value. UCL academics and students from a broad range of disciplines came together for the two-day event. ‘How to’ guides were produced in advance, so participants could get the most out of the session. IBM supplied the technology, mentors, judges and prize money.

Hackathon participants were divided into competing teams to come up with solutions to the problem. “Every idea presented at the end of the hackathon had great merit,” said Simon Baker, Developer Advocate at IBM. “The winning team in particular found a way to make the data more accessible.”

Each partner involved in the hackathon got genuine value from the collaboration. Students and academics had exposure to technology and experts they wouldn’t normally have access to. IBM could apply its technology to a real-world problem and mentor the next generation of developers and computer scientists. All the while, the Bentham Project team received a solution to making Jeremy Bentham’s important works accessible to the wide audience it deserves.

“The collaboration across disciplines can be really powerful,” said Oli Pinch, Project Manager for UCL Innovation & Enterprise. “We had participants with law, philosophy, history and computer science backgrounds coming together. IBM provided experts to guide them through the hackathon so they could get the best out of the technology. The Transcribe Bentham hackathon is a great example of a university and a big corporation collaborating on something that delivered real value.”


This article first appeared in the 2018 State of the Relationship report, commissioned by Research England and compiled and published by NCUB.