Online Courts Hackathon: the IT Group Experience

July 24, 2017

The SCL Hackathon entitled
‘Online Courts’ was attended by IT Group employees at the University of Law in
London, in early July. It was a hard, incessant 24-hour period, but our
combination of native developers and legal expertise allowed the IT Group team
to place in the top nine teams.

The idea of the hackathon was to
create a system, including planning, building and pitching, that would promote
open access to justice in under 24 hours.

Teams varied as much in expertise
as they did nationality, with one team travelling all the way from Australia!
From groups of legal counsel developing concepts to help simplify the legal
process, through teams of developers working to making the law less
intimidating and approachable all the way to teams of dedicated ‘hackers’ (people
who attend hackathons as their means of work) – all presented some fantastic
ideas with some truly innovative strategies and products.

But this write up is about my own experiences and IT Group’s
trials and tribulations throughout the challenge.

The challenges were set out soon
after arrival, and we promptly began by drinking the coffee provided. Now
fuelled with caffeine, the idea was created and work began as other members of
the team began to draw sketches of screen layouts so that, further down the
line during the Graphical User Interface development stage (when bleary eyes
and yawning was expected), there would be less thinking to do, hopefully
allowing productivity to continue.

IT Group came up with ‘Solvr’, an
application that was designed to assist in the mediation stage during the
claims process. Our aim was to develop a web-application that facilitated
mediations by removing ‘location barriers’; meaning all parties would not
necessarily have to meet in person and would also allow a mediator to run
several different mediations simultaneously. We focused our attention primarily
towards the small claims court, and adapted our model primarily to help this
clientele, by making the interface as simple and as easy to use as possible.

It was our hope that the
application was able to promote the settlement process prior to a case moving
to the small claims court (or potentially larger litigations) where the costs
of the process could rapidly increase for all parties involved.

The program gave each litigant a
slider that showed their current ‘price’ (minimum/maximum that would be
accepted) and gradually allowed them to decrease it until they entered into the
‘Zone of Potential Agreement’ where a settlement could be made (ie a crossover
between both parties’ sliders). The platform allowed uploading of images and
documents, as well as chat between the litigant and the mediator directly, and
a group chat between both litigants and the mediator together.

Kieran Maher, IT Group’s In-House
Web Development expert, quickly began to create the web application that would
house the controls and logic that would be provided to each of the users. As IT
Group’s Python expert, I began the creation of the logic ‘behind the scenes’
that would do things such as communicate details via text message to each of
the participants’ mobile numbers. This would increase the accessibility of the
system and limit the requirement to be sat at a computer.

By 21:30, tiredness was beginning to set in for both me and
my colleagues. Of course, there is only one way to combat a drop in

Work continued throughout the
night and by 12:30 am the makings of the application were beginning to become
clearer. The interfacing of Python and the PHP-based Laravel website had been
checked off, and now the back-end and front-end development continued in earnest.
The sun had well and truly set, most of the city had gone to sleep and a
determined silence fell across the University of Law, save for the sounds of
developers eating takeaways and slurping coffee and Red Bull.

One of the things that we
remarked upon and has been commented on by many of the attendees was the sense
of community at the event. The mix of lawyers, creative thinkers and developers
created a real atmosphere of sharing and trust; despite being a competition,
many individuals were offering help, assistance, guidance and advice to
neighbouring teams. In fact, one of the most memorable things for me during the
24 hours was networking with another team’s technology expert while standing
above a sleeping participant curled up on the floor.

By 5.00 am, the sun had risen
above the high-rise buildings in the Moorgate area. Its warm rays lit up many
sleeping faces of participants who had simply been unable to make it straight
through the challenge awake (perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, the more
sensible ones).

At 9.00 am on the Sunday morning,
pitches began. The judging process was split into two stages. The first,
overseen by four judges from a background of both Law and Technology, involved pitching
to an audience of five or six teams, with the pitch length set at four minutes.
The top three from each of the broken-down pitches would then move into the
finals, pitching (with an increased length of five minutes!) to the entire
hackathon audience, of around 250 people.

Because of the extensive
knowledge in the field of legal proceedings, the IT Group team was able to
compete without seeking legal help, which is something we pride ourselves on.

The IT Group team made it into
the finals, with the text message interface and the easy-to-use sliders being
commended by the judges, but ultimately the innovation of other teams won out,
with ideas utilising the Amazon Echo platform to create an Online Courts
virtual assistant.

We have all, at a management and
developer level, discussed following on from the event and have decided to
continue with the development of the mediation platform, and it may potentially
be offered as a service in time to come.

Aaron Pickett is a Digital Forensic Examiner at IT Group: