IT Group Developers Take On 24 Hour Hackathon Challenge

The Society of Computers and Law 2017 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, 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 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.

SCL Online Courts Hackathon IT Group
Original sketch of the proposed user interface.

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 (i.e. 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. Aaron Pickett, IT Group’s Python expert, 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. Of course, there is only one way to combat a drop in productivity…coffee!

Work continued throughout the night and by 12:30am, 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 backend and frontend 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 was networking while standing above a sleeping participant curled up on the floor.

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

At 9.00am 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 5 or 6 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 the team prides itself 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.

IT Group developers have 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.