There are some benefits to the current global lockdown. One of them was manifest last Friday. You could watch Georgetown Law’s Iron Tech Lawyer competition in real time from (primarily) Washington DC. The winning entry presented from Hong Kong; the three judges were dispersed throughout the US; and an honourable mention went to Melbourne. The video was sometimes clunky but, overall, it worked. You could be anywhere in the world and watch the process of selecting a winner from six final participating teams. It was a striking illustration of how technology can shrink the world while expanding innovation.
Georgetown’s Iron Tech Lawyer is ‘an international competition for student-created tech solutions that help bridge the justice gap’. What makes this different from a hackathon is that teams are presenting tools which ‘have been completed for a pro bono organisational client and developed in an academic course or supervised independent study in the 2019-20 academic school year’. Ten teams were entered into three preliminary groups from which two winners were selected for the final presentation. This was the first year in which there was an open invitation. The contest has been running for ten and is linked to a Georgetown course for which it is the culmination. It is run by Professor Tanina Rostain.
The requirement to have pro bono backing ensures that the projects are of a certain quality – and have reached a degree of operability. The one element that might be added to the process is rigorous testing of the substance of the app produced. That could be done very simply by asking specialists in each subject to produce a short report on the content and a technologist to rate the technology. Input by an expert was very helpful in the sort of equivalent NESTA challenge in the UK. It would be justified by the professionalism of the entries which was high though, notably, the three top apps very properly annotated themselves as ’student projects that have not yet been approved for use by the public’.
The educational element of the process is clear. The students involved were having to manipulate their knowledge to make their products work. If you can enter without travel fees then you can see that this would be a very attractive learning opportunity to any of the increasing number of universities that are developing courses on the practice of law and/or the the use of technology. It would be good to see even wider representation next year and particularly welcome would be some British engagement.
The judges selected three entries as a first, second and special mention. Winner was the University of Hong Kong with EC Casebank. This was developed for Hong Kong’s Neighbourhood and Worker’s Service Centre. This is, according to the South China Morning Post, ‘one of HongKong’s oldest political and grass roots advocacy groups’ and unfortunately suffering at the moment in the highly political context of Hong Kong. The app steers clear of this contentious context. It is ‘a single-platform of risk information and risk analytics. … our AI algorithm saves time costs spent on researching [employment compensation] cases for Hong Kong NGOs advising injured workers, injured workers themselves, and legal practitioners. We collect raw data from the judiciary and large-scale NGOs, starting with Neighbourhood and Worker’s Service Centre, extract the factors affecting the case outcome, and present the relevant part to our users.’ So, enter your injured body part, your salary, your occupation and press on a rather fascinating bottom named ‘sentiment’. This colour codes the judges perception of the credibility of the claimant in the reported case – green for positive, red for negative and grey for neutral. The students have done rather well to raise this issue but it does highlight a potential issue with the app – how it can respond to sensitive issues of credibility.
The second place went to the Next Steps Advisor prepared for the Superior Court of California Yolo County. It was devised by students at the University of California, Davis. This provides ‘domestic violence self-represented litigants the next steps specific in their domestic violence restraining order case in Yolo County’. It takes you through a series of simple questions and then produces a report on your next steps. It is supported by Neota Logic and provides a very straightforward illustration of how information can be provided in an iterative form, culminating in individualised information. This would be really easy to emulate.
The third entry, i-claim Bushfire Insurance Help, was from the University of Melbourne. This was given an honourable mention: ‘Our app guides users through the complicated insurance process. It breaks the process into three stages: claim preparation, claim lodgement, and outcome options. i-Claim helps users by providing information in an easily digestible format, using animations and clear, concise language. It allows users to securely store their important documents in one place. It also generates and sends letters to insurers and the financial authority, helping users draft and lodge claims and complaints.’ It is another product based on Neota Logic.
These three winners – and, indeed, the other seven contestants – should provide inspiration both for other student groups and perhaps other providers in the various ways in which technology can be used. For example, those involved in housing can see a cost of eviction cost calculator from the University of Arizona; an Electronic Means for Renter and Landlord Disputes from the University of Alberta; and a Habitabiity Abatement of Rent Mathematical Calculator from Albany Law School. These were not among the winners but I would defy anyone not to look at these projects and imagine how at least one might be adapted for other jurisdictions. So, hopefully, we will all be able to dial in next year – albeit from a Covid 19 free world – and see the iron tech programme move on from strength to strength. And with some British involvement.