LSC Conference Day Two: the pace continues

The second day of the Legal Services Conference Innovations in Technology conference in New Orleans continues its unremitting pace. Nothing really has changed as compared with yesterday – the speakers are as good, the topics as interesting and varied. But there is a general issue reflected in the one plenary session of the day which covered the ever popular ‘rapid fire tech’ and a report on the pre-conference hackathon: the sheer diversity of developments.

The rapid fire tech event pits six speakers with six minutes each and 20 slides at the audience as it waits for its lunch. All of them had learnt the way to do this – which was not the case in the early conferences where it was introduced and the audience got great enjoyment in seeing speakers fall behind their slides and fail to catch up. (The trick, by the way, is to make the slides generically illustrative of the topic rather than precisely scoping a particular point).All the speakers were technically fine and we zapped through topics as varied as the possibilities of  open answering of online legal questions on Reddit to the need for some system for putting data in trust so that it was not lost when, for example, a contractor went bust.

The hackathon ranged similarly ranged widely.  Groups had worked all Tuesday on a range of subjects which included systems for texting  vital information such as court hearings; the use of gamification in training; ethics in matters relating to technology such as artificial intelligence; and justice hub tools such as an automatic way to enter addresses including the relevant county (a particular US issue).

The difficulty is not with the topics as such, nor their context. For example, the work on ethics and AI is a theme which a group has been following through US conferences and will continue to do so. It is, in part, a response to the failure of the US Supreme Court to take a Wisconsin case where probation had been refused by an algorithmic programme  on a basis that its owners would not disclose.

The issue for delegates – not least those whose brains remain addled by jet lag – is to identify common themes in sessions that ranged through – as just a sample – various aspects accessibility, modern use of hotlines, pro bono essentials, developments in guided interviews, mobile-first websites, powerful public data visualisations and ‘smart intake’. It is clear that the US is experiencing much innovation and that the legal services movement contains significant amounts of it, some funded through LSC grants and others from other sources. But, the very extent and diversity provokes a question – can any unifying themes be identified? Those who attended a different series of sessions in a day that included a total of 24 might come to a different view. But my suggestions would be as follows.

First, the general point. The onward march of technology in the field of legal services – which might have been seen as somewhat halted as the Dutch Rechtwijzer went bust – and, in the UK, the growth of web-based, fixed fee firms like Co-operative Legal Services was checked – continues. Accompanying it is a increasing experience about what works and what does not. For example, conversations with delegates suggest that the early optimism over video as a method of remote communication with users needs to be tempered by an understanding that the process needs to be well managed and that some clients still dont like it. They were delegates who were not speakers but were just reflecting on the experience in their own state.

Second, there is growing experimentation with aspects of artificial intelligence and guided interviews. There was a whole session and several other references to Docassemble which is an open source expert system which you can customise for guided interviews and self-assembly documentations. It has been designed in his spare time Philadelphia Legal Services contract performance manager Jonathan Pyle. This incorporates an element of machine learning whereby the programme can be directed towards correct answers by its manager. Kate Fazio of Justice Connect talked about how, in Australia, they had incorporated voice recognition into their intake programme so that users could talk about their problem rather than having to write it down or themselves identify its nature.

Third, LSC grantees seem to have made progress on first of the targets set at LSC technology summits in 2012 and 13 which underlie its grants programme: ‘Creating in each state a unified “legal portal” which, by an automated triage process, directs persons needing legal assistance to the most appropriate form of assistance and guides self-represented litigants through the entire legal process’. Projects in Florida, Maine and Michigan had all implemented  portals that sought automated ways – generally though guided questions – to identify those who were eligible for legal aid services either through LSC grantees, pro bono providers or others using a variety of tools to deal with financial eligibility, geography and provision.

And, finally, there were a number of instances of what might be called picking the ‘low hanging fruit’. The digitalisation of legal check ups of users is a pretty obvious application of technology to a device thought up thirty years ago in the age of physical checklists. For obvious reasons, the ABA is supportive of this kind of initiative. States like Maryland and bodies like the Center on Elder Law and Justice – with its ‘Risk Detector’ app – have modernised the process through fairly straightforward digital translation.

So, another good day for the LSC IT conference. ‘Affinity dinners’ on individual topics and then Friday morning to come. Worth looking forward to. Could do with a good night’s  sleep.

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