(Summer 18) Kendall Garner, ’21, Massachusetts Law Resource Institute, MA
Hello everyone! I am sorry that this is coming so late, but I hope to be able to share a reflection of my work this summer. Sorry it is so long, but I want to give a full picture.
My name is Kendall Garner, and I am a sophomore studying EECS. Since September 2017, I have had the pleasure of working on MassLegalHelp.org (MLH), a collaborative effort by the Massachusetts legal services community, as a web assistant. Funded by the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, MLH is one of several websites produced by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. With over three million users in the past year, MLH seeks to provide practical and accessible legal information to low-income, low-literacy Massachusetts residents with legal needs. In addition to English, MLH also provides mirror sites in six other key languages!
Since I started my work with MLH, my position has been unique: it is entirely remote. While this means that I have fewer face-to-face interactions, it allows me to skip the Boston traffic and spend much of the summer with my family. I mentioned that I am a “web assistant,” but what does that mean? For much of the school year, this primarily meant updating advocacy guides–booklets aimed at non-legal advocates and social services workers who need to understand their clients’ legal rights in areas like h as Food Stamps and Welfare- Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC)
These advocacy guides are excellent educational resources. When I first started my work with MLH, I had little understanding about the issues presented in these guides. Sure, I had heard about Food Stamps, Welfare or TAFDC (TANF in other states), but I did not understand many of the details,especially not in the Massachusetts context. However, my work updating and editing the guides helped give me a much greater understanding about these issues. While I did not personally explore all of the linked documents, I feel that MLH is an invaluable resource for understanding our civil legal rights in Massachusetts without having to understand “legalese.”
Although education about our civil legal rights and responsibilities is helpful, sometimes people need more. To demonstrate this, let me provide a metaphor. Suppose you are driving your car, and all of a sudden you see one or more warning lights appear on the dashboard. You could look through the car manual to see what each warning means and try to find a solution, or you could find a professional (or a friend who knows cars) who can diagnose your specific case.
What does this metaphor have to do with legal aid? Instead of a car, now suppose you are facing a possible eviction from your home. In this example, MLH is like your car’s manual: it has all the information there, but you would have to look for it yourself. The problem is, MLH and similar guide-based designs are mostly static. Even though the information is presented in a logical fashion with the ability to query the entire site, it is difficult to find the specific information you need and the result may have more information than necessary. After all, you are trying to prevent your eviction, not necessarily learn more about housing programs..
What I am describing here is a conflict between wanting understanding versus a need for action. Lawyers and legal aid professionals want users to understand the reasons behind why a certain form is necessary. At the same time, people who need the services may just want directions on how to resolve their issues. Unfortunately, formats such as MLH have difficulty meeting both goals; some web pages may be too lengthy and have too much information, or others might require deeper digging. If we provide too much information on a page, then we risk discouraging users who are already under significant stress. Even when we provide the legal forms, there is a limit to how much guidance you can get.
Luckily, there is a possible solution to this issue. Instead of solely having static information, why not guide the user through a series of questions? Instead of just linking to a form, you can ask some questions, such as “Would you like to reschedule your case?” and “Are you prepared to move?” and automatically fill out the form with them. This way, you can segment the sometimes complicated legal forms into easy to understand chunks and help guide the user. When the user is done, they will have a completed form, which they can print and use in court or to negotiate with their landlord. This process of automation is called Document Assembly. This is similar to software like TurboTax or other tax programs, which ask the user questions and produce forms at the end that you can print.
When it comes to Document Assembly, there are many options. You can use commercial software like HotDocs or ContractExpress, or choose to use an open-source framework. In our case, we decided to use Docassemble, an open-source document assembly framework built largely on Python. This summer (and continuing into the fall), I hope to set up the Docassemble server in collaboration with MLH and start producing some interviews.
For this project, I hope to address a couple key aspects. Since Docassemble is only a system, there needs to be some server that is actually running the software. However, if there is a server, that means there has to be someone who can manage the server and/or sufficient documentation that can help others troubleshoot. Ultimately, the goal should be to reduce the amount of work necessary to maintain the server; there are numerous other projects simultaneously taking place, and I do not want server management to eat up any time. The second and more important aspect, to me personally, is security. Once the interviews are written, it is possible that we could be handling very sensitive user information–from names and addresses, to more personal details pertaining to cases–and it is essential that this information is secure.
All in all, this project has me extremely excited. This will be the first time I have the opportunity to set up a server of this magnitude. While I am a bit nervous working with new technology, I am looking forward to all that I will learn throughout the process. Through this project, I will be able to combine two of my favorite activities: programming and helping others.
In truth, this entire project has been a series of “Aha!” moments. When I started the project, I had no idea what to expect. I thought (wrongly) that it would be reasonably easy. After all, the command for running the program was one line! In fact, it was nothing like that. From setting up the initial server, to writing some test interviews, I have stumbled on a lot of issues before finally realizing the solution, a couple of days later.
In June, we at MLH, had just heard that we had won our bid to produce 8 Docassemble interview. This win required us to set up the Docassemble server. A few days later, I was talking with my supervisor via Google Hangouts, hoping to set up what would later be our production server (what users would see when they visit the site). After registering on our hosting provider, I began the process of downloading Docassemble and starting the server. Five minutes later, all the necessary files downloaded and we were ready to start the server. Another command, much impatient refreshing, and some five minutes later, the web server was up! I could even verify this by visiting the website in my browser.
Fast forward a couple of weeks (and a lot of documentation), and we realized that a single server was not enough. Consequently, I would have to set up another server—this time for development. However, there was still one large task that I hoped to accomplish. One especially nice feature about Docassemble is that it can interface with multiple external services: Google Drive, Amazon S3, and Github, to name a few. Since there are multiple people working to create interviews, I hoped to enable GitHub integration, which would allow us to have our code in a centralized location and make changes, without breaking the interviews. On the surface, this looked easy. Just ask GitHub for some information, and give that to Docassemble. The rest should be easy.
Only, the rest wasn’t so easy. I tried using git on my personal account, but all I could do was give the code to myself–I couldn’t find an easy way to share this with the rest of the team. Eventually, after emailing the creator of Docassemble and another developer (and another week), I came to realize my misunderstanding. It was a simple fix, but there doesn’t appear to be any official documentation on it. Finally, a couple of weeks later, we were able to do a successful live demonstration with the rest of the Docassemble team.
While this may not seem like an especially pressing issue, being able to centralize the code is essential for long term development. When we start having four to eight interviews, possibly with multiple developers working on the same interview, it is important that we can do so without worrying that a single “oops” would delete months of work.
Possibly the biggest takeaway for me is learning the practical value of documentation. When I program for myself, or for a small project, I rarely if ever document my work. At the same time, I rely on the documentation of other programmers when I use some of their programs. Working through setting up the servers, I have come to realize the value of documentation, both when writing code and when using others’.
Unlike some of my classwork, which will probably not be revisited by others, these servers must be sustainable, quite possibly by people other than myself. While documentation will take up extra time, it is essential to those who wish to use what one have made. But, even more than that, I came to realize that documentation was helpful to me myself! By writing down all the steps I took (with pictures) for setting up the initial server, I was able to reduce the time to set up another server from weeks to days. Best of all, writing down what I did gave me a better understanding of my work, so that I would remember all the steps, even without the guide.
In the same vein, I also came to realize the importance to having good documentation for others. When I was trying to set up GitHub integration, my first step was to try and read the Docassemble documentation. While it gave me some advice, there were certain details that I could not find. So I had to email the creator and another developer to figure out how to…. In the end, what should have taken at most a day resulted in a multiple day waiting game.
I am Caroline Robinson, Codirector of the Massachusetts Legal Aid Websites Project, Editor of the website, MassLegalHelp.org. MassLegalHelp is Massachusetts legal services’ collaborative effort to provide legal information and tools to the tens of thousands of Massachusetts residents who have legal problems and need help understanding their lawyer, or most likely cannot get help from any lawyer. Legal aid programs across the country turn away more than 65% of clients who qualify for our services, we can only serve a fraction of people who even recognize they have a legal problem. We are constantly struggling to find ways to help people who are in danger of losing their homes, their children, wages they have earned, their children’s educational rights and many other fundamental civil rights. Providing information online is one way to help.
As is the case with most non-profits my team is very small. In addition to myself, one volunteer programmer, and several attorneys who are experts in their field who try to squeeze in contributions where they can compose our team.
Although my primary role is to edit the content on the site I am responsible for the entire site, including the technical side of things. I am not a computer programmer or developer but my role has required me to to learn all kinds of skills I never wanted to learn. Nearly everything I have learned of a technical nature has been from being thrown in at the deep end. Indeed too often the results of my own best efforts in the pool of technology are a doggy paddle. My solutions like the doggy paddle, can only keep us above water for so long before we start to slowly sink.
We do have a budget for technical help, but it is small and the need for the tools we can provide is a gaping hole. Kendall began working for us in September, 2018 and rapidly posted 4 Advocacy Guides – hundreds of pages of content we need to update every year. Within a few months he detected a basic setting in the website that caused us to take 4 times as much time as we needed to post updated PDFs. In other words he cut the time it takes to post PDFs we have to post to the website by 75%. This is a project we need to do every year and it was a crippling soak of our time. In addition, to figuring out how to get the PDFs posted to website in record time, he also adapted the forms that people need to print and fill out, to forms that people can fill out on their computers and then print. He even figured out how to make the software do some fairly complicated calculations to allow people to enter only the numbers they know and not have to figure out any formulae. Many of our users are lay advocates and this contribution alone saved not only me, but our users time by allowing them to produce, legible, reproducible and accurate PDF forms.
A few weeks later Kendall identified a major security issue that I was not even aware of. My approach to security has pretty much been a combination of blind faith in the goodness of mankind, good kharma and a deep hole in the sand. Seriously! Kendall took it upon himself to increase security on the website so that we would not have to move servers again – a painstaking process which saps our resources.
The document assembly project Kendall has described in earlier blogs would have taken us literally years to get off the ground. After identifying, attacking and resolving our security issues, it became clear to me I had truly undervalued the contributions Kendall could make. As this realization dawned on me I recognized the work I had asked of him was not stimulating his interests and or enhancing his education. I was desperate to keep him working for us, engage him and make his experience with us valuable for him as wel as for us. I had to think beyond tasks that are critical to the functioning of our website, but tedious for the person performing them. I realized with Kendall’s help and skills could begin to explore a new technology for document assembly.
Many legal aid programs across the country already use and are upgrading an easy-to-use system that allows non technical people to build interviews for users to produce forms, letters and other documents. However, Docassemble is a much more demanding technology. It requires a great deal more set up and involves a sheer learning curve.
For people who experience Docassemble interviews, the experience is simpler and less buggy than the more common A2J Author that most legal aid programs use. It is friendlier and more readable than HotDocs.But it is far more difficult to implement and learn and implement. It is powerful and flexible, but it is hard especially for a non-technical, non-programmer person.
Before you can start to use Docassemble, you need to have a server set up and if you commit to this technology so you can offer real interviews to real users, you must have a production server your users/clients can rely on and a development server for testing
Kendall stepped in and agreed to set this system up. As he was setting up both servers he documented the steps he took. I may not be technically adept, but as an editor I can spot beautiful clear writing and Kendall’s documentation is superior.
Furthermore, in order to learn the Docassemble technology and actually put it into practice, he asked for one of the more complicated sets of forms we are offering our users. At the minute the forms are PDFs that tenants who are going to court for eviction cases can use when they go into negotiation. Roughly 85% of eviction cases result in negotiation outside the courtroom The majority of tenants in eviction cases do not have lawyers and are ill equipped to negotiate with their landlords lawyers. Also once a tenant has a record of going into court landlords count the court case against the tenant and are often unwilling to rent to them. The forms we offer tenants to help prepare them for negotiation are very powerful tools, but they are written by lawyers, for lawyers and the court. They are extremely difficult to understand and fill out. Although we have pages of directions to help people fill them the directions demand lengthy reading and a degree of concentration that can be impossible for people in crisis. Kendall is working on automating this set of forms. The questions Kendall asks in his interview are simple and straightforward enough that a user can answer them easily. Then interview determines which forms are most relevant and useful to the user. As the user progresses through the interview answering simple questions, the interview links to and displays small relevant pieces of information to enhance the user’s understanding. This technique is called ‘just in time learning’ and helps users understand the implications of their choices and inform them so they can think a little more about how they answer the questions.
As Kendall builds this set of forms he is also building ‘libraries’ or snippets of code that I can reuse in other contexts for other interviews.
After we began exploring the Docassemble technology, and Kendall had just finished setting up the first server, another legal program put out for bid a project that is critical to the work. It makes sense in so many ways for MassLegalHelp to do the work on this Docassemble project. It helps 2 groups of people, whom legal aid programs seldom are able to help for Sophie’s Choice-like funding and resource reasons. These 2 groups are: 1) people whom the Social Security Agency overpays and 2) parents who owe the Massachusetts welfare department overdue child support. Typically legal aid programs are unable to take on these cases.
MassLegalHelp already has a number of articles to help guide people through the labyrinth of forms and paperwork, but it is a daunting path and too many people give up, overwhelmed by the mountain of reading and understanding required to complete different forms. The information is useful, valid and accurate, but it is often too much for someone in crisis who struggles with reading for whatever reason. The interviews are interactive and as friendly as written questions on a computer can be. The questions gently guide a user to the end product, forms they can submit to the relevant agency. Along the way, the user is exposed to the information that is most relevant and meaningful each step of the way. These interviews safeguard someone in one of these 2 categories from having to search and wade through various paragraphs that are not immediately relevant to their needs.
Without Kendall’s contributions and support we never would have been able to bid on this project that is perfectly suited to the work we do and enhances the tools we can offer our audience.
The other side of Kendall that has been an extra bonus and makes him irreplaceable is his patience and teaching skills. I began the blog whinging about all the work I have to do and how I have been forced to learn and do so many things purely out of necessity. I have had to learn so many things digging my heels in all the way, Kendall has been patient and understanding all along. He has not only dissolved my fear and trepidation when approaching various topics he has eagerly supported my learning, allowing me to go at my own pace in what can only be described as what seems to be an innate style. I often refer to his documentation to help me through various problems and whenever I get stuck he always talks me through. I have learned more ways to make Drupal do the things we need it to do, I have made great progress learning git – an area I have been struggling to grasp for the last 3 years, and now I am learning how to create interview in Docassemble. Whatever I need I can count on Kendall to help me figure out.
I am so very grateful to the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center for providing us with Kendall Garner and everything he brings with him. By extension he has contributed immeasurably to improving the lives of thousands of Massachusetts residents who come to our website every day looking for help. This year Kendall has contributed his time, skills, commitment, social conscience, awareness of individual website users’ needs and experience. His patience and understanding have ensured we have the foundation for a slew of interviews that are one of the most valuable tools we can offer our online users. Kendall’s contributions this year are only visible to people like me who work on the back end of the website, but next year we will be able to share comments from the many people who I am certain will have benefited from the forms we will only have been able to offer because of Kendall.