It’s not unusual for law schools to buzz deep into the midnight hours with the staccato click-clacking of laptop keys under the weight of fingers furiously working away, powered by little other than caffeine and a looming deadline.
But on the night of Oct. 24, the rhythmic tapping at Campbell Law School came not from students cramming for an exam, but from computer coders participating in Hackcess to Justice, a “hackathon” sponsored by the North Carolina Bar Association and the ABA Journal. The weekend’s mission was to bring coders and lawyers together to engineer tools to help improve access to the justice system for low-income people in North Carolina.
Per the culture of hackathons, the weekend started with project pitches, in this case from attorneys from Legal Aid of North Carolina and Disability Rights of North Carolina, about problems they faced that they hoped could be addressed with web-based technology. The coders in the room then chose the problem they wanted to tackle and had a little more than 24 hours to build from scratch a new application designed to address the need—an arduous schedule to which sleep was usually the first casualty.
North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jackson, the event’s closing speaker, noted the scale of the problem being tackled by the lawyers and coders (a few participants had a foot in each camp) assembled in the room. Roughly 2.2 million people in the state qualify for legal aid, but there is only one legal aid attorney available for every 13,170 low-income people. Compounding matters further, Legal Aid is currently in the process of cutting another 45 jobs due to budget cuts. Event organizers hoped that technological solutions could help the remaining lawyers deploy their very limited time more efficiently.
“We understand the law, and you understand the technology,” Jackson said. “Your participation is vital to our success.”
The coders were competing for three cash prizes sponsored by Citrix, a major software company with an office in downtown Raleigh. The winning submissions all had a few common features—a spiffy user interface, mobile technology, and utility in solving a key problem for legal aid attorneys.
The $1,500 first prize was awarded for a mobile app created by Caroline Di Maio, an attorney with Legal Aid NC, and Edward Ingram, a web developer and former attorney from Apex. After meeting for the first time at the hackathon, they collaborated to create a working prototype of a mobile app that would let migrant farmworkers report allegations of health and safety violations at their workplaces to Legal Aid.
Right now, Di Maio explained, Legal Aid often faces challenges in acting on such reports. Migrant workers, because they often don’t speak English, are new to the area, and may work on a particular farm for only a week or so, often have trouble identifying the location of the farm where the alleged violations occurred. Workers frequently provide descriptions to the effect of “the farm down the road from a blue water tower.”
The app Di Maio and Ingram created would provide farmworkers with information about their rights, in English and Spanish, and let them fill out a form to send to Legal Aid describing the problem. The app would let workers upload photos, video, or sound recordings, and GPS locating would give Legal Aid a line on where the violations are happening, to address the “down the by water tower” problem. (Di Maio said that usually at least someone on a farm crew will have a working cell phone.)
A $1,000 second prize went to two 25-year-old hobbyist coders, Chris Price and Cody Meshberger, who learned about the event on Devpost, a web forum that styles itself as a “home for hackers.” They envision their creation, FastTrack, as a “total legal help site.” It includes an eligibility test to help users see if they may qualify for an expunction of criminal records (many people don’t, and sorting out who does is a significant use of Legal Aid resources), a tutorial on how to look up their criminal records on the state’s database, other legal resources, and a lawyer referral function utilizing GPS.
The third prize went to a mobile app that would help people determine whether they qualified for Legal Aid services.
Matthew Wilcut, a staff attorney with Legal Aid who also codes, created his own submission, which would help train attorneys and clients on how to use CCIS-CC, the criminal case management system that will replace the state’s woefully outdated ACIS system. Wilcut said the project was the first prototype he’s ever coded, and that he was extremely impressed with the quality of the creations that emerged from the hackathon.
“We would have been happy to see any one of those,” Wilcut said. “They all could have been put to use yesterday. They all already improve on some existing process.”
This is the third hackathon that the ABA Journal has sponsored, following previous events in Boston and New Orleans.
Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovanl