This year at the 2015 Annual Meeting, I attended the AALL Hackathon: Connecting Legal Information workshop. This second annual event was held on Saturday, July 18 from 7:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. at Peirce College in Philadelphia. According to the organizers, the purpose was to “bring together those with knowledge of available resources and needs, like law librarians, with those who have the technological know-how to build mobile and web applications to use those resources and meet those needs.”
I participated in this workshop on a lark. I am not a hacker, a coder, or technology person. I own and use technology, but I also still think fondly of the good old days when we had to wedge half a clothespin in the tape player to make the 8-track play properly. I happily have friends who are technology fiends, and I am quite comfortable with association, but that is intentionally not my area of expertise. So, attending a Hackathon was not the most obvious choice for me.
The instructions for this Hackathon were to bring a computer and an idea of legal or government information that could be made more accessible for users. And, together with a programmer, we would begin to build a useful and free resource. Examples of such projects are GovTrack.us and the creation of a PROXYsearch script that transformed the South Carolina Judicial Opinions webpage into a site with an integrated search interface and improved access to the judicial opinions. This script won the AALL Hackathon prize in 2014.
I signed up for the Hackathon because I wanted to be exposed to the process of creating a legal portal from beginning to end. I did not have any ideas, and didn’t try to formulate any plans. I fully intended to be a lurker at the Hackathon. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the attendees also did not have ideas. Somehow, we were able to develop and begin executing a plan.
I got the chance to work with four librarians and a programmer to brainstorm an idea for a webpage that performed a 50-state survey to determine whether a particular topic might be trending in the news; the page would have had a “heat map” that showed how “hot” the topic is across the country. We envisioned this tool as a pre-research device to help students and other researchers determine whether a certain research topic might be viable before spending time and energy researching statutes and cases.
As a team, we made decisions about what the page should do, how it should look, and what functions should occur in the fore- and background of the site. Based on those ideas, our programmer began to build our page and search engine from scratch. We were euphoric, already planning how we would spend our $250 prize (yes, there was money to be won)!
Our joy ended when someone ran a web search and discovered that Google Trends does what we’d hoped our search engine would do, and so much more. Needless to say, we were disappointed. The leaders of the event tried to encourage us with the fact that our idea was viable, even though Google got to it first. We even played around with a few modifications, but eventually we gave up and left the Hackathon early.
This Hackathon was a good introduction to partnering with a team, including a programmer, to build something new. We didn’t get the results that we had hoped. We did not create an app or a webpage. There was nothing that I could list with pride on my resume. But, I learned quite a bit.
Every time I search the web or use a database and find something that could work better, I have a potential idea for a hack. And, I don’t need to know how to design the patch or create the webpage myself. I just need to be able to communicate the problem to my programmer or technology colleague and brainstorm how to make said improvements. I learned that teamwork can be relaxed, fun, and productive. And, as every good research librarian should remember, I was reminded to always run a preemption check.
I’m not sure if I’ll attend the Hackathon in Chicago. Devoting an entire day to this project is a lot to ask. But, I will keep a running list of changes and improvements that I’d like see and think about whether there is something that can be built to make legal information easier to access.
If you are even remotely interested in what was accomplished at the Hackathon in the past years, I encourage you to sign up and attend. Lurkers are definitely welcome. And, you might surprise yourself by participating on the winning team.