Tag Archives: lsc tig blog

Making Your Website More Useful For More People

This post was originally published on the LSC Technology Blog in January of 2014. LSC is Legal Services Corporation, my employer.

At LSC, we’ve been taking a critical look at our web site, to see if we can make it a more useful web site by factoring in all of the ways that people might want to view or use our information. In these days of big data and small screens, we realize that we have to be much more attentive to the ways that we present data than we have in the past.

Identifying the different visitors who frequently use our site, we took a closer look at their needs, and how we could improve our delivery of information to them. For example, visitors to LSC’s web site could be:

  • reporters or Hill staffers looking for a quick cut and paste of data on the site that is hard to get out of a linked PDF;
  • general public looking for data to pull into a spreadsheet, who would also be disappointed to find that data in a PDF;
  • visually or physically impaired, and therefore not able to view web content that isn’t compliant with the standards that their specialized software requires;
  • accessing the site on a mobile device that doesn’t display flash or video and has no capability to display a PDF

The PDF Problem

Adobe has done great things with the Portable Document Format, opening it up as a public standard and continually improving the functionality of the format. But this is not an optimal format for web-based content, because PDFs require additional software in order to be viewed, and they need to be created with a solid understanding of how PDFs need to be prepared, so that they are compatible with accessibility standards. Our goal is to ensure content is delivered optimally, and in a format that makes it easy to access for anyone and everyone visiting our site.

In the past, we’ve relied heavily on publishing web content via PDF, and we now have a backlog of documents that aren’t as widely usable as we would like. Our plan is to immediately make two changes:

  1. Use PDF sparingly and thoughtfully as we move forward. Use PDFs as optional downloads for content that is also displayed in HTML, or as appropriate downloads for white papers and legal reports that aren’t the types of things that users will want to quote or edit; design PDFs that are compatible with the section 508 standards for web accessibility.
  1. Determine which of our existing PDFs need to be republished in more accessible formats and convert them. We don’t have the resources to fix everything, but we have good statistical data from Google Analytics to tell us which PDFs our visitors look at and a good idea how to prioritize this content.

Open Web

As a nonprofit that allocates federal funds, we have a responsibility to make data available to the public. But a commitment to open data means more than just making the data available; it needs to be available in formats that people can easily use. Data stored in an HTML table can be copied and pasted into Excel. Data in PDF and image formats can’t be, at least, not easily. As David Ottewell recently tweeted, a PDF of a spreadsheet is not a spreadsheet. These efforts dovetail with our broader efforts to make data available in manipulatable formats.

Wild, Wild Web

It is also important that our web site deliver the same user experience on smartphones or a tablets as it would when viewed on desktop or laptop browsers. This wasn’t high on our radar in 2011, when we redesigned our website in the Drupal content management system. At the time, we developed a mobile site as a separate, fractional copy of our main site.

Looking ahead

A  modest revamp of LSC.GOV is planned for second half of 2014 to improve the site navigation and responsiveness on multiple devices (e.g. one site that alters it’s navigational elements and appearance to properly utilize the screen that it’s displayed on). We also won’t forget the visitors that don’t have smart phones and how best to make information available to them.

Having a website that anticipates their diverse needs of our online visitors is our goal. What’s yours? What are your current challenges?

Finding Aid To Improve Find Legal Aid

This post was originally published on the LSC Technology Blog in January of 2014. LSC is Legal Services Corporation, my employer.

FLA-example.PNG

Hands down, the most popular feature on LSC’s website is our Find Legal Aid lookup, which directs you to the LSC-funded legal services provider in your service area. I’m happy to announce that we’ve given this lookup a refresh while simplifying its use. But we didn’t do it alone, and the story of how we got this project going is one that I really want to share with our community.

As I’ve blogged about before, our service areas are a unique geography that doesn’t lend itself to easy data integration. This became a problem when we started looking at the possibility of sharing our data with the hacker community, in hopes that they would use it to develop apps that further equal justice goals. Simply put, our territories sometimes run within county and city boundaries, making it difficult to align them to standard geographical data. This also meant that our Find Legal Aid tool was a complicated piece of code that was never entirely accurate (it was right 99.8% of the time, and, otherwise, the people who answered calls could redirect someone to the proper legal services provider).

Our desire was to have Find Legal Aid work the same way that any major retailer’s “Find a Store” lookup would, with no more input required than a zip code. We didn’t have the internal expertise established to do this on our own. So we learned of a group called the DC Legal Hackers, and we introduced ourselves. DC Legal Hackers is one of a number of Legal Hacker groups in the US and Canada. Legal hackers work at the intersection of law and technology, looking for ways to improve public access and address inequities in the system via the web. Access to Justice is one of the areas that they focus on. When the group held their first hackathon, we pitched revamping our lookup as one of the projects. Glenn Rawdon, Jessie Posilkin and I attended the hackathon on a Saturday and assisted where we could. We watched as some brilliant people took the shapefiles that LSNTAP made of the LSC service areas and mashed them up in such a way that, by about 2:00 in the afternoon, we had a working prototype.

It took a bit more time for LSC staff members Peter Larsen, Christina Sanabria and Alex Tucker to take it from prototype to a fully-functional application. We gained a lot more internal expertise in working with mapping technology. It’s important to note, though, that this took time, building the skillset as we completed the application and kept up with other priorities. These projects work best when the deadlines are loose.

We did face some choices. The lookup does not return office addresses or info about branches. We assume that the service providers may prefer to start with telephone screening before directing the public to a particular office location. We are contemplating adding links to online intake systems and statewide web sites relevant to the results. And we’re looking to see if a SMS text-based version of Find Legal Aid might be easy to produce.

We’re grateful to DC Legal hackers for taking us halfway there, and over the programming hump that was beyond us. There’s a great community out there willing to work with us.

Hacking For Justice

This post was originally published on the LSC Technology Blog in May of 2013. Note that “LSC” is Legal services Corporation, my current employer, and “TIG” stands for “Technology Initiative Grants”.

Welcome to the new LSC Technology blog, hosted here on the TIG site, and written by TIG and Information Technology staff. To kick this off, I wanted to report on a fun, exciting, and long overdue initiative we’re on: making our non-confidential data available to hackers.  Let me be clear here, for those of you who have any bad associations with the word, that  a “hacker” is not a computer criminal or spy.  The term has been misused to connote such things, but the original and current definition of a hacker is simply someone who likes to take things apart and rebuild them better, or take things apart and make new things out of them. Most recently, hacking and hackers have been tied to the community of civic-minded web application developers who want to take publicly available data and make it accessible and relevant to their communities. And that’s the group of hackers that we’re discussing.

Hackers hold Hackathons, extended sessions where hackers get together to collaborate on projects. At the first LSC Tech Summit, United States Chief Technology Officer Todd Park addressed the group and urged us to model the behavior of the Department of Health and Human Services by holding hackathons and letting developers build the rich demographic applications that tell our story.

June 1st is the National Day of Civic Hacking.  Across the United States, “Hackathons” will be held in cities of towns, and the attendees will show up with their laptops, connect to the wifi, and create map mashups using tools like Google Maps and a collection of public data sets. The About section of the website describes it like this:

“The event will bring together citizens, software developers, and entrepreneurs from all over the nation to collaboratively create, build, and invent new solutions using publicly-released data, code and technology to solve challenges relevant to our neighborhoods, our cities, our states and our country.”

We’re busy analyzing our data sets, many of which are already available via our web site, but not in the most flexible formats. We’re also working with friends and partners like ProBono.Net to identify more legal aid data, on the assumption that the richer the data set, the more inspiring it will be for the hackers to work with. And I’m looking into other ways to make this information available, such as submitting it to the U.S. open data repository at Data.Gov. A big tip of our hat is due to Kate Bladow, who alerted me to the Civic day of Hacking to begin with, aware of how great it would be if we could get our data sets there on time.

Two questions for you:

  1. What kind of mapping mashups would you like to see done with LSC and related data? We can’t tell the developers what to do, but we should be able to tell them what people would love to see, and hopefully inspire them.
  2. Are you a developer? Whether you’re a C++ maven or just somebody who figured out how to save a Google Map, you might enjoy and benefit from participating in the hackathon.  Do consider it.  I’ll be attending the Baltimore day on June 1st. See you there?

Trello: A Swiss Army Knife For Tasks, Prioritizing And Project Planning

This post was originally published on the LSC Technology Blog in May of 2013. Note that “LSC” is Legal services Corporation, my current employer.

One of the great services available to the legal aid tech community (lstech) is LSNTAP’s series of webinars on tech tools.  I’ve somehow managed to miss every one of these webinars, but I’m a big fan of sharing the tools and strategies that allow us to more effectively get things done. In that spirit, I wanted to talk about my new favorite free online tool, Trello.

Trello is an online Kanban board.  If you’re unfamiliar with that term, you are still likely familiar with the concept: most TV cop shows have a board in the squad room with columns for new, open and closed cases.  Kanban is the name for these To Do/Doing/Done boards, and they are a powerful, visual tool for keeping track of projects.

You don’t need Trello — you can do it with a whiteboard and a marker.  But Trello’s online version can become very useful very fast.  Like the best apps, the basic functionality is readily usable, but  advanced functionality lurks under the hood.  With no training, you can create a todo list that monitors what’s coming up, what you’re working on and what you’ve finished.  Explore a little bit, and you learn that each task can have a description, a due date, a file attached to it, it’s own task list and one or more people assigned to it. Because Trello is just as good as a one-person productivity tool as it is as a team coordination tool.

I can report that the IT team at LSC has dived into it.  Here are a few of the things we’re using it for:

  • Our project big board.  We keep all of our upcoming projects, with due dates and leads, in a Trello board.
  • Individual task lists.  The developers track their major deliverable dates, the rest of us the small things we’re working on.
  • Strategic Planning – anyone who has ever done a session involving slapping post-its on the wall will appreciate this simple, online version of that exercise.  SWOT analyses work particularly well.

At this year’s Nonprofit Technology Conference, where I first learned about Trello, it was successfully being used as a help desk ticket system.  I’d recommend this only for small programs.  A more powerful free ticket system like Spiceworks, or a commercial product will be able to handle the volume at a 50 person + company better than Trello can.

But here’s the real case for a tool like Trello: it goes from zero to compellingly useful in seconds.  While I won’t knock enterprise project management systems, I lean toward the ones that give me great functionality without taking up a lot of my time.  I’ve hit a couple of stages in my career where the immense workload begged for a such tools, but implementing one was too big a project to add to the list.  I bet that you’ve been there, too. Trello lacks the sophistication of a waterfall system like MS Project or an agile one, such as Jira. But it can get you organized in minutes.  And, in our case, it doesn’t replace those more sophisticated systems. It supplements them at the high level.  We do both traditional projects (deploy servers, install phone systems) and agile ones (build web sites, program our grants management system).  We can use the proper tools for those project plans, but keep the team coordinated with Trello.

Here’s our 2013 project board:

 

Note that we only assign the project leads, and the main use of this board is in the project review that kicks off our weekly staff meetings. But it’s helping us stay on task, and that is always the challenge.

What are your favorite tools for team coordination and project management?  Let us know in the comments.