Hackathon winners' app helps migrant workers locate aid
Asked to name some of her biggest challenges as a legal aid attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, representing migrant farmworkers, Caroline DiMaio emphasized the migrant nature of her clientele.
“Our clients are constantly on the move, depending on where the harvest is,” DiMaio says. “A lot of times they are moving weekly. They don’t always know who they’re working for or who owns the place where they’re living. Sometimes they would call our office looking to file a complaint, but we would have difficulty locating them or determining who their employers were.”
If only there were a way for migrant workers to keep track of their location, as well as take and record evidence in order to help lawyers like DiMaio better represent them.
Unfortunately for DiMaio, there was not an app for that. So she and programmer Edward Ingram created one.
Their app to help North Carolina migrant farmworkers took home first place at the ABA Journal’s Hackcess to Justice, held Oct. 24-25 in Raleigh. The event was the third hackathon sponsored by this magazine, following events in Boston in July 2014 and New Orleans in March 2015.
As with previous events, the main purpose of the hackathon was to bring together lawyers and computer programmers to design applications or websites to help meet the legal needs of low-income individuals and families. The two-day event in Raleigh, co-sponsored by the North Carolina Bar Association, was held at Campbell University School of Law.
The winning app emerged victorious from a field of competing innovations that included an app to guide individuals through the state’s criminal records expungement process and a website to determine whether a user is eligible for legal aid services in North Carolina.
AN INSTANT TEAM
DiMaio and Ingram, who met on the first day of the hackathon, came up with the app based on DiMaio’s experience with her clients. Ingram says he had an idea in mind for a different project but quickly signed on to help DiMaio after hearing her pitch.
“My idea was to build a portal for clients to interact with their legal aid attorneys and receive updates about their cases, no matter where they are,” says Ingram, a freelance Web designer and developer who was an attorney for about 10 years. “But after I heard Caroline’s presentation, I liked her idea better.”
The app, available in both Spanish and English, allows users to submit Occupational Safety and Health Administration complaints to the Legal Aid Society of North Carolina. It also enables users to take photo-graphic and video evidence, and it accesses a smartphone’s GPS capabilities so that users will always know where they are—and that those coordinates will be included in the complaint so the attorney will know where to file the complaint.
“We haven’t taken it further since that weekend,” says DiMaio, who has worked for the legal aid organization since graduating from the University of North Carolina School of Law in 2009. “We hope to get a functional app out by the time the agricultural season starts next spring.”
The Legal Aid Society of North Carolina has already adopted one product of the hackathon. It will begin testing the Legal Aid Eligibility Test website, the third-place winner, which calculates whether someone is financially eligible for representation.
“It surprised me that something like this didn’t already exist,” says Michael Silverman, a software developer who came up with the site. “It can be a pretty cumbersome process to go to the office, get processed and fill out all the forms—especially if it turns out that the person isn’t eligible.” The site can save time for both potential clients and the legal aid office, he says.
According to Kristofer Cook, another legal aid attorney, the site will undergo testing, and the hope is that social services and other community agencies will be able to use it soon.
“We’re hoping it will help our community partners figure out who to send to us,” Cook says. “Eventually we hope we can release this to a more public audience so that individuals can take a look for themselves.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Zeroing in on Help: Hackathon winners’ app helps migrant workers locate aid—and themselves.”
• Victor Li shares his reporter’s notebook at ABAJournal.com/lawbythenumbers and on Twitter as @LawScribbler.