Using Technology and Social Media to Assist Underserved Populations

These are notes are from a panel presentation session at the American Bar Association 2011 conference in Toronto last Thursday. Panelists included lawyer/librarian Matthew Braun, Legal Reference Specialist at the Law Library of Congress in Washington, DC, Sara Sommarstrom, Program Director, Minnesota Justice Foundation, and Prof. Nanette Elster, Vice President, Spence & Elster and Adjunct Faculty, The John Marshall Law School, Chicago, IL. Note: these are my selected notes from this session; any inaccuracies or omissions are my own. I welcome your comments and follow-up thoughts!

This session was made up of three very different presentations exploring how technology is being used to provide legal or health care services and information to populations that otherwise would be underserved:

  • In the first presentation, Matthew Braun described online services from the Law Library of Congress, including how the Global Legal Information Network has become a key portal–and even the main repository–for legal and national documents for some countries that do not have their own online repositories.
  • In the second talk, Sara Sommarstrom described ways in which the Minnesota Justice Network is leveraging a small staff using new technologies, providing services to homeless veterans, those in rural areas without lawyers, and reaching out to a certain population in urban areas who could possibly be need specific legal advice.
  • In the third talk, Prof. Nanette Elster spoke passionately about the growing divide that is being created with increasing inaccessibility to legal services, healthcare services and Internet by parts of the population. She spoke specifically about the use of social media to improve health care for the underserved.

These talks provide examples on how this divide can be narrowed with existing technologies and social media.

Matthew Braun, Law Library of Congress,

The first mission of the Library of Congress is to support the Congress, but they also support constituents. It is the oldest U.S. federal cultural institution, with a permanent staff of about 3,600 employees. It has the largest collection of libraries in the world and 144 million items in 420 languages.

Researchers can find additional information by going to:

The Law Library of Congress (LLC) was established in 1832 as a separate department of the LOC. They currently have about 30,000 volumes in a public reading room.

Some of the resources they offer:

  • Global Legal Research Center – – the GLRC has a staff of foreign law attorneys who can advise on law in other countries
  • Global Legal Information Network – – “a public database of official texts of laws, regulations, judicial decisions, and other complementary legal sources contributed by governmental agencies and international organizations.”
    For some jurisdictions, GLIN serves as the primary repository for legal information. For countries with a legal system in place, this might also serve as a central place for their legal information. Searches can be run in several languages.
  • THOMAS – – legislative information from the U.S. Congress. Allows for search of legislation. Staff members of the law library add content daily
  • A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation – – includes U.S. congressional documents and debates from 1774 to 1875.
  • Legal Blawg Archive – captures an archive of a selected number of legal blogs. Searchable, and divided by subject area. Because this is an archive, they do not actively capture current blog posts.
The LLC also provide service through social media:

Question from the audience: Is the library planning to digitize?

Braun: They are in the same building as the US Copyright Office, so are not looking to digitize monographs as others have. They are working with the GPO to make primary legal material available electronically. They are also working on ways to make the case law more accessible; a lot of the content is in proprietary systems.


Sara Sommarstrom, Program Director, Minnesota Justice Foundation,

Minnesota Justice Foundation Pro Se Clinics is a “tiny little non-profit” of 7 staff members who have been able to do some amazing things with free technologies.

Helping homeless veterans:

For example, they recently participated in a Stand Down event for homeless veterans. They used online resources with laptops and wireless to provide information. They used ProJusticeMN and LawHelpMN as resources. According to the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty, child support services for homeless veterans are essential. There are currently more homeless veterans in the U.S. than service members who died in Vietnam.

Serving rural populations:

Minnesota has a lot of rural area with few lawyers, so they use technology to link in to expertise in the urban areas. They are taking advantage of Interactive Television (ITV) currently present in every courthouse in Minnesota. It was set up so that those in other counties could appear in court, but is under-utilized. They use the equipment in law firms and courthouses to link in with private attorneys to get advice from them for pro se litigants. It allows attorneys to take part without giving up days for travel. They are asked to be available on certain days when clinics are run; if a topic in their area comes up, they are contacted to participate via video. This allows those attorneys to participate while giving up as little time as possible from paid client work.


  • bridges geographic divide between clients and legal services
  • allows them to provide services where there are no attorneys
  • makes it easy for attorneys to volunteer
  • allows for effective use of volunteer resources (especially students who are familiar with the technology)

They also use Skype successfully to “stretch across boundaries”. They find video conferencing works best because attorneys feel more comfortable giving advice if they can see the litigants.

Remote technologies at clinics are easy and cheap to set up; can be used anywhere:

  • use wireless “hot spots” to set up their own wifi;
  • scanner/copier/printer

They have even used this in army tents.

Outreach to tenants in foreclosed properties:

How could they identify tenants in foreclosed properties so they could reach out to them with legal information? The solution was to cross-reference foreclosed properties with rental license data (all done by law students). They used a program called to map them on Google Maps, and sent out law students to the properties (giving them directions to properties and a phone number in case they needed help). The students provided free legal advice, giving information to the people who needed to know their rights in the case that the property they were living in was being foreclosed.

Question from the audience: Would Skype help outreach to a Spanish speaking population?

Sommarstrom: Find out language skills of the lawyers providing service and make sure they are available when needed.

She also participated in an Externship using Skype, including someone based in Alaska where there are no law schools.

Additional notes on this talk can be found on the ABA Journal blog: Pro Bono Goes High Tech, and Homeless Veterans Benefit.


Prof. Nanette Elster, Vice President, Spence & Elster and Adjunct Faculty, The John Marshall Law School

Using social media to improve health care for the underserved: we have great tools out there, but not everybody is informed about them. Health and social media has been in the news a lot. One of the key missteps traditionally in emergency management has been miscommunication. Social media is changing this.

23% of internet users with chronic illness have looked online for others with similar conditions. Even if people do not have internet access, they can use cell phones to access medical information. However according to Pew in 2007 there is a digital divide between different demographics. There are things that can dramatically improve this.

Example of a health care organization providing service via social media:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) participates online:

Inaccessibility to legal services, healthcare services and Internet is creating a growing divide.

There is also blurring of boundaries now for physicians. Not everyone putting information out is credible. There needs to be a mechanism in place to ensure what is put out is accurate. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) views mobile medical apps as posing potential health risks, so they want to create some oversight.

Standards for physician/client confidentiality are changing. What do you do in an age when patients can “friend” a physician on Facebook? Lines get blurred as to what is personal information and patient information. The American Medical Association put out a social media policy for physicians: AMA Policy: Professionalism in the Use of Social Media.

Social Justice or Social “Injustice”?

  • seeing some disparities crossing boundaries, but also seeing some things coming together for fewer disparities
  • Example: the “text4baby” program is a free text messaging service in English and Spanish for prenatal and postpartum care
  • According to “Peer-to-peer Healthcare” from Pew Research Center (February 28, 2011), when they find information and support through the Internet, people feel less isolated; the Internet is a source of emotional support
  • Mayo Clinic is a pioneer, feeling that people should drive their own health care support
  • Partners Healthcare’s Center for Connected Health in Boston use cell phones and computers to help monitor people at home, text pregnant teens and have outreach for drug users

Healthy People 2020 (HP 2020) recommends increasing the use of social marketing in health promotion and disease prevention.

Some considerations:

  • who is using it and in what form?
  • understanding who is not using it and why not is just as important
  • most libraries now have free Internet access
  • how do you encourage use so that it engenders trust?
  • the need to maximize the potential of social media
  • what kind of oversight is needed? Right now there are a lot of legal disclaimers, but what about thinking about ensuring the information is really true and accurate? Focus energy on medical/legal partnerships.

Do what Public Health is designed to do, for prevention rather than later care treatment. This would improve the health care costs. In sharing resources, there is a need to speak different languages and understand different cultures.

Question from audience: What about the use of Skype?

Elster: Skype is a great way to build a different kind of community, and allow law schools to connect remotely without moving their families. It also means they have to become better at written communication

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