In his February 3rd, 2017, Slaw article entitled “Build, Baby Build”, Colin Lachance describes his experience of having individuals share with and seek his advice on building some “app/service/tool that could very well make a valuable contribution to public or professional engagement with legal information or the legal system.” Having come from a law and technology background, I have had the same experience. Often times the questions from aspiring legal tech entrepreneurs center on struggling to understand how or where to begin. I have found that this leads some to overthink things and to not get going. I sometimes just want to say, “Why are you waiting? Just get to it!” However, I can appreciate how such a task can seem daunting, especially for someone who does not come from a technical or design background. Thus, I have a suggestion for people who are looking to start their own venture: attend a hackathon.
If you happen to live in Toronto, then you are in luck, there are numerous hackathons organized throughout the city each month. There are also weekly hackathon meetups for those interested in helping build civic technology. These can be great places to meet other like-minded people from different academic and professional backgrounds, i.e., design, marketing, software development, from whom to learn from or who may be interested in contributing to your idea. What would even be better is if you can find an industry specific hackathon. For example, Osgoode Hall Law School’s Winkler Institute for Dispute Resolution and the Cyberjustice Laboratory at Université de Montréal brought together students, legal professionals, computer programmers, computer scientists, software developers, members of the public and professionals of various disciplines for a two-day HackJustice hackathon on February 3rd and 4th in Toronto and Montréal to create technology applications to help improve access to justice. I was fortunate to have been asked to participate as a HackJustice mentor.
For those unfamiliar with such events, hackathons are intense, collaborative brainstorming and development sessions in which groups meet to design new and innovative ideas and computer programming to meet a stated challenge. Most hackathons have a specific focus, usually to creating usable software to solve a problem, and may take place over the course one or several days. Hackathons promote innovation and development by bringing together people who may not usually connect otherwise.
In the case of the HackJustice, each participating group was instructed to select and work on one of the three challenges presented. The challenges reflected the organizers’ desire to build tools to facilitate public engagement and participation in the justice system. The first challenge, asked groups to develop ways to use social media tools to engage with policy discussions before they become enacted into law. The second asked groups to develop technology solutions to address the obstacles that prevent consumers from accessing and receiving justice in disputes with companies. Finally, the third challenge asked groups to develop technology tools to help people develop the confidence and capabilities they need to deal with everyday legal problems.
These challenges are broad enough to require participants to advance through the stages of application development – problem, solution, build, iterate – but narrow enough to actually build a prototype within the two days. As a result, participants come away from these types events with a better understanding of how to transform an idea into a workable framework for implementation. In addition to the practical experience, HackJustice offered prizes to the winner, which could assist the group to continue on with their ideas. For example, the winners of the Toronto HackJustice won a $1500.00 cash prize and a 4-month membership at Ryerson University’s Legal Innovation Zone, which provides co-working space, support, and resources for those working on justice and legal system solutions.
While Hackathons won’t provide you with all the answers and skills necessary to turn an idea into a practical technological application, the experience they provide, the connections they foster, and the tangible resources they provide can help jump start your venture – so, get hacking!