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Programming justice - The 2018 ITCon Hackathon

By Andrew Sharp on January 16, 2018

It's 3:45am when the screen's reflection flashes on the man's dark sunglasses with a green confirmation message: "Access granted." With a smirk, he lowers his hood slightly, cracks his knuckles, and goes to work harvesting the data he just worked so hard to break into. "They will never know what hit them," he thinks to himself.

Dark keyboard

If this is the kind of scene that you imagine when you hear the word "hackathon," you are not alone. I had to explain the concept to many people when I told them about my experience at my first hackathon this past week at the 2018 Innovations in Technology Conference (ITCon) (formerly TIG) in New Olreans, LA.

This is because the term "hacker" and "hacking" have two different meanings. The first is the image displayed above: a person who uses computers to subvert security and gain access to information they are not authorized to access. This is the definition that most people are aware of, and is the one most commonly used in the media.

But in the tech community, the term "hacker" started off as a word to refer to anyone who was proficient in programming. "Hacking" was simply what happened when they plied their trade. I like the Internet User's Glossary definition from 1993:

"Hacker: A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular."

A hackathon is a more recent innovation, where a group of programmers (and non-programmers) get together and work continuously in groups to try and build something usable in a short period of time. The resulting software is then usually judged by a panel, and winners get some sort of award. This is becomming a common event in the legal aid world, with the aim of building tech solutions that can help deliver legal services to people with low income, or support the organizations that do.

#LSCITCon Hackathon

The hackathon I participated in took place over the course of one day (1/9/18), the day before the ITCon began. ITCon is an event hosted by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the largest funder of civil legal aid in the country. LSC gives a special type of grant called a Technology Innovation Grant (TIG) to its grantee organizations to innovate and improve their technology systems and use. The ITCon is a yearly gathering of the various organizations and companies in this space.

The hackathon took place at Launch Pad, a co-working space a few blocks from the conference. It wasn't far, but organizer Joseph Schieffer of the Florida Justice Technology Center made sure that people found it by holding a sign on the street showing us the way:

Joe welcomes people to the hackathon with a sign on the street corner

Abhijeet Chavan was another event organizer and posted a lot of tweets during the event:

It was really perfect for the event - what better place for a hackathon than a co-working space?

Front desk at Launch Pad

There was a large open area in the center where everyone congregated at the beginning and end of the day, and during breaks. Nearly 30 people participated. We also had access to lots of other smaller conference rooms where people could go to work.

Joe kicked us off a little after 8am after we filled up on food and coffee:

Joe talking in front of crowd at hackathon

We then split up into 5 groups, based on which project we wanted to work on.

Gamifying training for legal services organizations

My team was made up of me, Bong Robles from Micronesian Legal Services, and Mike Grunenwald from Pro Bono Net.

Three men sitting at a table smiling

Our project was an idea that Bong came up with at his work, where he helps facilitate internal training for the legal aid attorneys. He found that his colleagues really enjoyed taking the Microsoft digital literacty lessons because they were interactive and game-like. His idea was to find ways to "gamify" training at legal aid organizations.

We started off with grand visions of a complete Role Playing Game that would deliver all of the training needed for a legal aid attorney. They would be able to access all of the lessons from an app or on their computer, and they would be able to navigate through a virtual world where they gained points and achievements for doing well in the lessons.

However, we only had one day to work on the project, so we focused on a project with a smaller, more realistic scope. We decided to try to do one lesson, and then create a mock-up (or "wireframe" in design parlance) for a dashboard where users could see their progress. Not quite a fully imersive gamified experience, but it was a start, and it was doable in one day!

Bong also had already started working with an interactive training tool that he showed us which he thought we could use to put together our training: h5p. This is an open source plug-in that allows you to do quizes, drag-and-drop activites, and much more. And it works on Drupal, which is the open source platform that about 25% of legal aid websites run on.

You'll notice that much of the software that goes into hackathons is open source - this is because it is free, and anyone can read the code that makes the programs work (the "source" is "open"). There is a strong ethic in the hacker community of making things open source so that anyone can use them.

As for a lesson topic, we decided to focus on something that would be useful to all of the legal aids at the conference, and the one thing that they all have in common is that they work with LSC. So, we decided to work on a lesson that was about LSC, its history, how it works, etc. The first part of the lesson was about the justice gap, and why LSC was created. You can see it here:

We also put together a small activity to showcase the drag and drop feature of h5p. It is designed to test the user's knowledge of the LSC funding restrictions:

I know what you're thinking - these are pretty cool, but they're not exactly gamified! That's where the dashboard comes in. It is a place where you can see your progress on the lessons, including a leader board with your colleagues' scores, as well as badges that you've earned. This was not something that we could build in Drupal in one day, but Mike did an awesome job of mocking up what it might look like:

Mockup of dashboard

He even went a step further and mocked up what it would look like for the manager who is in charge of making sure everyone completes their training. This is to showcase the benefits to the agency of this type of training:

With all of our "deliverables" ready to go, it was just a matter of presenting it to the group. Although our hackathon didn't have prizes, there was still a lot on the line - the admiration of our fellow hackers!

Joe applauds the hackers before the presentations begin

As for our presentation, you can judge for yourself how it went. Here is the video:

There were lots of other great presentations, ranging from a tool that auto-completed address fields in an automated form, to advances in SMS sharing for legal content, to principles for preserving due process in an age of automation. Learn more about the other projects here.


I had an amazing time at the 2018 ITC Hackathon, and I am excited to participate in more of them. In the legal aid/tech world, it can be very difficult to feel the sense of community, since we all communicate through computers so much. Hackathons allow you to actually share physical presence with the people that you are working with, which is a lot more fun! It's also very efficient, showcased by the huge amount of work that we were able to get done in such a short amount of time.

Huge thanks to Joseph, Abhijeet, Launch Pad, and Liberty's Kitchen (for the food!) for being part of this amazing event. And of course, to the Legal Services Corporation, for making it all possible! You can support them here, and you can support Illinois Legal Aid Online here.