Thursday, January 19, 2017

WriteClearly: Developing a Google Apps Add-on to Promote Plain Language in the Legal Community

Hackathon Participants at LSC TIG Conference, January 2017

I recently was sent by my employer, Greater Boston Legal Services, to a legal technology hackathon at the TIG 2017 conference in San Antonio, Texas. Our team created a tool that helps legal aid lawyers do a better job of writing for the general public. Statistics show that the average reading level in the United States is between 6th and 8th grade. We created an add-on that connects Write Clearly, a plain language tool developed with funding from legal services programs, to Google Docs. Lawyers and advocates can now use Write Clearly from within Google Docs to evaluate their writing. The app also offers suggestions to make the writing readable at the average grade level. The goal is to get advocates to write letters that do a better job of informing our clients.

A "hackathon" is a gathering of people who know the topic (civil legal aid) and people who can program. Some hackathons are contests, but this hackathon was cooperative, with the 30 attendees from all over the country breaking into teams to work on 7 different projects. Projects ranged from improving the sharing of information, to using artificial intelligence to speed up the legal intake process. A lot was crammed into a short time! We worked for about 8 hours straight in our teams. With funding for legal aid threatened and the need growing, legal technology is set to play an increasingly important role in helping legal services bridge the access to justice gap. I wrote this blog post to talk a little about the hackathon and the Write Clearly tool; the process of developing for Google Docs; and where this project might go in the future. I include some technical background and code, but if you're just interested in how the app works for end-users, feel free to skip to the description of the project and next steps.

For anybody interested in working on add-ons for Google Docs, I can tell you that the process is surprisingly accessible even for someone new to modern web development, and it can be quite rewarding. It was really fun to spend a day and publish a complete project to the Chrome Web Store. As a model for other projects, I think others could benefit from learning how we were able to develop something useful, quickly, by leveraging existing work.

Unfortunately, I can't share a public link to the project just yet--the Write Clearly team is working on making changes to the code that makes this work in the background--but all of the code for the Google Apps add-on we created is on Github. Keep an eye here over the next few weeks for the link to the app itself to be made public.