The Internet is not a good place to find legal services. Even as more people search the Internet to figure out how to respond to a problem in their life, they can’t find clear answers or paths to get things done easily.
With this project, we aim to begin addressing this problem by establishing (1) a backend infrastructure of legal services, with an open, data-standardized, coordinated system of help-providers, and (2) an ecosystem of more usable, useful, and engaging tools for laypeople to use, built on top of this infrastructure.
Open, standardized data will provide the foundation for new tools that lay people can use to figure out what services they require (and are eligible for), and how to best access them. In particular, we will develop standardized, structured data representations that will allow Search Engines to provide clear guidance on trustworthy, local legal services in response to users who are searching for help with a legal problem. We will also define a systematic agenda of what kinds of tools, interfaces, and services are needed to make this data meaningful to people searching for help online.
We are bringing together key stakeholders from legal service providers, courts, technology companies, and researchers working on legal service innovation, open data, search, and related topics. This working group will plan and implement a pilot of data standardization for one area of legal services, and then will begin to generate tools and interventions for the general public’s benefit.
In our first meeting on November 11, 2015, we will begin tackling the question of “How can we make the Internet a place for more accessible & user-friendly legal services?” Or, how can we make online legal services “Simple at the Front & Smart at the Back?” This will entail discussions of both:
(1) “Front-End” tools — tools, websites, and other interfaces that laypeople could be using online to find, understand, and act upon legal information & services
(2) “Back-End” coordination — what legal service providers, technology companies, and other social service coordinators can be doing together to allow for more comprehensive, coordinated service offerings online
We will go through a series of discussions about current initiatives and proposals, brainstorming new initiatives, and refinement to create an agenda (if not also a plan of action) for what needs to be happening on both fronts. Our goal is to also lay the groundwork for some pilots among Bay Area actors, of both front-end tool-building and back-end coordination efforts.
After this first meeting, the goal is to formalize the working group and plan of action. This action-plan likely will flow through three phases:
(1) developing a shortlist for what needs to be improved for a better legal internet: including coordinated data standardization among service-providers, better user-facing tools and platforms, and other coordination of service providers & systems;
(2) defining what specific pilots we could implement in the Bay Area (or beyond) for a discrete legal issue, to test and gather data about these user-facing tools or back-end coordination;
(3) soliciting participation from a wider community to support these efforts, and promote the importance of improving the lay person’s experience of finding legal help online.
As the Internet becomes more pervasive in the way people respond to problems and seek out help, there is an opportunity to transform how most people interact with the legal system. What if, when a person searched Google, Bing, or Yahoo about their problem situation, they were able to find clear ways to: (1) understand the legal options open to them, and; (2) find clear, local options to start addressing their problem? What if information about legal services was provided online in a reliable, direct, and interactive way, so that it was more comprehensible and actionable for lay people?
Currently, that is not the case. An Internet search for legal help results in a mix of advertisements for lawyers, general articles about legal topics, and forums where people share their personal experiences. The search results are not often jurisdiction-specific, nor do they provide clear ways to figure out services a person is eligible for, or how to get them.
Our project aims to start improving this situation by establishing standards for how legal service providers (including courts, legal aid groups, and others) save and share their data about service options, eligibility, and procedures. If service providers use a standard format and common semantics for their data, it will establish a solid groundwork for a new generation of smarter, powerful technology tools to connect lay people with legal help.
With a coordinated system of standardized data:
(1) search engines could respond to queries by providing clear guidance to local service options,
(2) centralized websites could walk users through eligibility-checks and route them to local service-providers for their needs,
(3) an ecosystem of apps, websites, and other smart tools that can flourish drawing upon this coordinated infrastructure.
This project has two main sets of goals: (1) short-term deliverables for our year of activities, and; (2) long-term goals that these deliverables will serve.
Short term goals:
- Assemble a working group of stakeholders with the expertise to define data standards, and to instantiate them in the context of a specific type of legal service in a limited geography (e.g., family law in California)
- Establish open standards for data, including file formats and semantics (e.g., ontologies) as required
- Generate concepts for tools and Internet search interventions that will use the data standards
Long term goals:
- Internet search results that give clear, reliable guidance to local legal services
- New tools that allow for eligibility-checks, process-guides, and coordinated legal and social service care
- More coordination among social service providers, for improved & holistic care for people in crisis
- Increased participation among social (and legal) service providers in making their resources standardized, machine-readable, and coordinated, and increased funding support from philanthropic foundations
- (and most importantly) A smooth, holistic way for a layperson to go from ‘searching a problem on a search engine’ to ‘finding and following through on a legal process’, all while online.