What to make of hackathons?


Hackathons, competitive events taking place over a limited period of time (often 24 or 48 hours) are a popular way of engaging a wide range of people in technological solutions to legal problems, often relating to access to justice. What assessment can we make of their effectiveness?

Last week gave me my first involvement as a judge of a hackathon organised by Legal Geek, an organisation intending to make ‘London the best place in the world to launch a legal start up’. The results were announced at an achingly trendy former brewery – all brick walls  and  high windows – close to the beating heart of London’s main technology hub. The vast room reverberated to rock music; the place was crowded (the judging followed a conference on legal start ups); the buzz was palpable.

The work on the hackathon had taken place the previous weekend at Google’s Campus London. Seven teams toiled from 6pm on Friday night for 24 hours. They got free food and drink (largely, it seemed, pizza, red bull and coffee).

The task was summarised as being to address the issue of ‘advice deserts’. The formal brief was actually slightly different: ‘Many of those in rural communities across the UK face difficulty obtaining independent legal advice and representation and therefore access to justice. This is due to the fact there are very few law firms in these rural areas and often firms will represent the council or a conflicting party in a dispute. This problem of conflict can be solved through technology, by linking up rural communities up with lawyers across the UK, not just those in their local area, independent advice provided to those in need. Our Mission To create robust digital solutions that will enable those across the UK, particularly those in rural communities, to access independent legal advice and services, and therefore justice in a more efficient way.’

Never has the audience been younger, more diverse and more excited over all the hours of discussion of advice deserts that I have attended,. This was distinctly not the usual worthy group of NGO stalwarts.

The teams came up with a variety of solutions which basically operated along two parameters. One approach emphasised the way in which technology could put those seeking help in touch with whatever provision was available – often in the form of ‘pro bono’ assistance. The other focused on how the web could be used to draw out from the user details of the problem so that the work of an adviser could be minimised. A good example of their work can be seen in the attractive video of Team ‘AdvoAble’ here.

Given that the teams only had a day to work on the project, all the results were remarkable. All the sites seemed to work technically. Their combined effect was to emphasise that, if there are no physical advice agencies present, then technology does offer a potential way of extending some form of service. So, I was impressed by what the teams had done; I was really impressed that they seem to have enjoyed doing it; and I thought that there was some potential here for a real solution.

But, I left with some confusion over hackathons as a genre – no part of which was any criticism of this particular one or its participants.

Some of my uncertainty comes from an awareness that hackathons can be viewed in very different ways. I have spent a lifetime in NGOs that have sought to address versions of the advice desert problem. So, it was easy for me to see the process through the eyes of committed NGO advisers in the field. Some of them would say that the problems of access to justice are so intractable that you could not hope to cook up solutions over a weekend. They would point to oversimplifications – manifest in the definition of the task that had been designed to provide something workable. The problem of ‘advice deserts’ is not actually just rural isolation. In England and Wales, it is the vagaries of legal aid (many of the teams understood that financial conditions for legal aid, if you can get it, are stringent and built into their programmes ways of calculating eligibility but none dealt with the now horrifically complex rules on what subjects are in scope or out of it). Nor did – perhaps could – anyone deal with the issue of those who would be unable to use technology for one reason or another (admitted by our government to be 18 per cent of the population as a whole – larger for those who are poor). Additional problems come from the geographically delimited boundaries of much NGO provision. No good turning up to an advice agency in Swansea, if you live in Cardiff – you are out of catchment. The really diehard technology sceptics would even fear the danger of minimising the complexities of the real situation and giving the impression that problems like this could be easily solved.

No one, understandably, had the time or resources actually to get to the really hard part – whether you might give substantive advice on the web which could actually be of assistance to users resolving their own problems. Nor did any of the teams address the major issue of pro bono in terms of how you manage provision and uphold quality – except one group that suggested that the Law Centres Network might manage the system and others that prodded the Law Society (good try). The difficulty with addressing issues like these is, of course, that one moves beyond the procedural technology to the substantive content. That is not something you are going to be able to do unbriefed and over 24 hours.

On the other hand, even the most cynical would have found it refreshing to see a wide range of young people approaching access to justice as a problem that can be solved rather than something whose lack is to be lamented. And a web-based system could provide assistance to some. Many of the presentations were, for example, very close to existing services e.g. the free legal answers programme just announced by Illinois Legal Aid Online.

But the presence of existing products raises an issue for the hackathon model. What do we think of the process if the work of the teams is fun, exciting but undertaken in the shadow of something that already exists and which is unavoidably better? The exercise risks becoming artificial and the really bright candidates will learn that they can consult an answer sheet with a bit of net research.

I feared for the teams that had put their heart and soul into the project but where recognition of that went little further than some nice words of appreciation. That is fine if participants understand this is the deal; are undertaking the exercise for the experience, recognition, career development and – true – the remote chance that their ideas might be taken further. But there is an underlying tension here. The technology is new and fun and malleable: the substance is old and gritty and intractable – solutions probably need money and engagement that is all too often not forthcoming. Clearly, there is no problem with the use of hackathons or scrums or any other workshopping of approaches within a wider strategy of addressing an intractable problem. The difficulties lie in hackathons as a self-standing exercise.

For all these doubts, the final judgement on short-term hackathons seems to me, for the moment, essentially positive. Longer term approaches that work with teams over a longer period of time – for example in incubators like Toronto’s Ryerson University or the Hague Institute for Innovation of Law –  might have more chance of getting to a product that might actually be implementable. But, ultimately, it is better to have excited groups of young people – if they can bear it – recognising, discussing and seeking to solve issues about access to justice than to leave the field to the sober despair of the initiated. And, at any rate for the moment, successful approaches to the use of technology in providing advice and information is a wide open field: teams might come jump with something but they should recognise that the value is more likely to be in the process through which they go rather the product they present.

So, well done, LegalGeek.

And well done to the members of the seven teams. Hope you enjoyed drinking Google’s Red Bull.

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