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Reflections on the 15th TIG conference: Drupal and the Future

By Gwen Daniels on January 20, 2015

Last week marked the 15th anniversary of the Legal Services Corporation's annual Technology Initiative Grant (TIG) conference. I've had the good fortune to attend many of these over the years, including the early ones in Chicago, the Great Ice Storm TIG of 2007, and each of the last four years. I love going to TIG--it gives me a chance to spend a few days around people who are very much like me. As Vince Morris once said at a TIG conference, "we work every day with people who don't really understand what it is exactly we do and TIG is like coming home" -- I find some truth in that.

Going to TIG also gives me an opportunity to consider how far we've all come over the last 15 years (yes, I've been around that long). The TIG conference itself is reflective of the community's evolution --from a conference for fewer than 75 TIG grantees to one with 300 attendees. This year's sessions reflected the impressive advancements we've made: as a community, we've gone from posting legal information and referrals in the early years to gaming, app development, expert systems, triage and intake in 2015.

For me, this year was special for another reason. Each year, the conference has had two affinity sessions at the same time: one for states using the LawHelp template and one using the open source template (first Zope/Plone and now Drupal); there was no session for states like Illinois that went rogue and built their own statewide website without a template. With ILAO's decision to move to Drupal, I finally had a website affinity group to belong to! And, I even had the honor of being able to present on ILAO's work at the session.

Legal aid already has a great Drupal community!

I ended up spending a big chunk of the conference just talking to other Drupal states and learning more about what they've been up to. We have a great Drupal community doing some interesting work (Massachusetts' taxonomy-based triage tools and the work on the triage and intake for Maine, Vermont, and Connecticut (available on CTLawHelp now) or the work that Urban Insight continues to do to keep the DLAW template fresh). What's more Connecticut is doing some awesome things with gaming that hopefully we can build off of.

I'm hoping ILAO can make the community better!

I'm extermely proud of what ILAO has built in the past decade that I have spent with the organization. From GuideMe modules that bundle up content (and have since been replicated by other states) into neat packages, to SMS texting campaigns and mobile apps, to a highly sophisticated, multi-program, highly customizable online access system built using the Drools rules engine. (A side note: I am very aware and very thankful that ILAO has had visionary funders who from day one have understood the importance that technology plays in bridging the justice gap and has allowed ILAO to have a full-time developer (me) on staff as well as other staff resources that other states don't have).

At the TIG conference, I spoke about ILAO's rebuild and where we are heading in the future. One of the attendees asked why we chose Drupal over Joomla or WordPress. Both are perfectly good platforms but Drupal won out for a number of reasons (strong community, promising future, great contributed modules), not the least was this: I want to be able to share back with the legal aid Drupal community the technical solutions ILAO creates.

So where exactly is ILAO going?

As part of the Drupal panel this year, I talked a bit about where we think we are heading in our rebuild. Some things on our radar:

  • One website. We currently have 4 websites: two for the public (IllinoisLegalAid.org and AyudaLegalIL.org), one for legal aid advocates, and one for pro bono attorneys. Our vision is to create one website with a continuum of services from basic to advanced to meet the needs of all users.
  • Responsive content: Create profiles for users based on what they do on our website, what similar users do on our website, as well as demographics data (gender, age, location, interests) and seek to proactively deliver the content that solves their problem. A recurrent theme at TIG this year was the need to solve the user's problem or answer their specific question. Users (public and attorneys) don't want to read a treatise on divorce. They want the answer to their specific divorce question. (The Arkansas Legal Services Partnership is thinking about the same type of content delivery and Vince Morris and I are hoping we can collaborate a bit on this.)
  • Integration with Salesforce and Google Analytics. We use Salesforce, among other things, to track staff and volunteer time. A lot of that time is spent working in the content management system, so why not track activity in Drupal and sync it with Salesforce? We've used Google Analytics for years but always as a standalone application. There are reports we can't get--like aggregating content by LSC problem code, or content by user interest, that we could collect by pulling GA data directly into Drupal's admin pages.
  • Improving publishing workflows. We just completed a business process improvement project to map out our processes for publishing and managing content on our websites. We'll be taking the recommendations from that project and automating them in Drupal.

All of these can be shared directly back with the community. Our redesigned content will be set up to be publishable to ShareLaw.org. Our workflow modules, integration modules, and general website modules may be shareable via Git or Drush (I'm unsure at this point how best to share the code). It is my hope that at least some of this will be useful for other states using Drupal 7.

Back to making the community stronger...

I'm very fortunate here in Chicago to have a strong Drupal community. That's not true in all the states. Rochelle Hahn (Massahcusetts) collected a list of email addresses for a general Drupal list serv; it was created a while back but hasn't been active. Brian Dyer Stewart (Maine) and I talked a bit Friday afternoon about going a step further and putting together a legal aid Drupal developer group of some sort so that we can all help each other out and share information. Some ideas we bounced around were a list serv, IRC (Drupal has these generally already), virtual meetups and virtual co-work times, and setting up a space to share code. Brian will be sending something out to the community in the near future.

I thought I was excited about ILAO's move to Drupal before, but after TIG, I'm even more excited and more certain that we are going down a great path for future development!