Hands down, the most popular feature on LSC’s website is our Find Legal Aid lookup, which directs you to the LSC-funded legal services provider in your service area. I’m happy to announce that we’ve given this lookup a refresh while simplifying its use. But we didn’t do it alone, and the story of how we got this project going is one that I really want to share with our community.
As I’ve blogged about before, our service areas are a unique geography that doesn’t lend itself to easy data integration. This became a problem when we started looking at the possibility of sharing our data with the hacker community, in hopes that they would use it to develop apps that further equal justice goals. Simply put, our territories sometimes run within county and city boundaries, making it difficult to align them to standard geographical data. This also meant that our Find Legal Aid tool was a complicated piece of code that was never entirely accurate (it was right 99.8% of the time, and, otherwise, the people who answered calls could redirect someone to the proper legal services provider).
Our desire was to have Find Legal Aid work the same way that any major retailer’s “Find a Store” lookup would, with no more input required than a zip code. We didn’t have the internal expertise established to do this on our own. So we learned of a group called the DC Legal Hackers, and we introduced ourselves. DC Legal Hackers is one of a number of Legal Hacker groups in the US and Canada. Legal hackers work at the intersection of law and technology, looking for ways to improve public access and address inequities in the system via the web. Access to Justice is one of the areas that they focus on. When the group held their first hackathon, we pitched revamping our lookup as one of the projects. Glenn Rawdon, Jessie Posilkin and I attended the hackathon on a Saturday and assisted where we could. We watched as some brilliant people took the shapefiles that LSNTAP made of the LSC service areas and mashed them up in such a way that, by about 2:00 in the afternoon, we had a working prototype.
It took a bit more time for LSC staff members Peter Larsen, Christina Sanabria and Alex Tucker to take it from prototype to a fully-functional application. We gained a lot more internal expertise in working with mapping technology. It’s important to note, though, that this took time, building the skillset as we completed the application and kept up with other priorities. These projects work best when the deadlines are loose.
We did face some choices. The lookup does not return office addresses or info about branches. We assume that the service providers may prefer to start with telephone screening before directing the public to a particular office location. We are contemplating adding links to online intake systems and statewide web sites relevant to the results. And we’re looking to see if a SMS text-based version of Find Legal Aid might be easy to produce.
We’re grateful to DC Legal hackers for taking us halfway there, and over the programming hump that was beyond us. There’s a great community out there willing to work with us.