Guest post: Recapping SXSW’s Crowdsourcing Justice panel

Guest post: Recapping SXSW’s Crowdsourcing Justice panel

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The following is a guest post from Todd Hendricks, an Austin Tech Alliance professional member.

Todd Hendricks

There was no escaping politics this year. Erroneous rumors of SXSW conference officials threatening to report bands to ICE for performing unofficial shows stirred controversy in Austin, days leading up to Interactive. The conference quickly stepped in to clarify their standard contract terms and provide assurance that they were not assisting with deportations.

But the dustup represented a data point on a larger trend for those who feel their ideals are under assault. In many ways, this year’s SXSW Interactive was a Venn diagram of almost perfectly overlapping circles. Both Austinites and the tech industry attendees continue to share concerns for a number of federal policies, ideologically and commercially, and the conference offered an ideal forum for a meeting of the minds. The overriding question on everyone’s mind was clear: what can we do?

Monday afternoon, at the J.W. Marriot, a panel of leading immigration lawyers and technologists addressed the question directly. “Crowdsourcing Justice” was focused mostly on immigration law, and the free-flowing discussion highlighted victories and opportunities in the “justice tech” space.

Stephen Manning was one of the panelists. A Portland-based human rights lawyer, and the director of Innovation Law Lab, his comments framed the challenges of the resistance from a law and policy standpoint.

“There are no references to immigration in the Constitution,” Manning noted. Historically, the courts have deferred to the executive branch on immigration policy. Given wide latitude, executive branch driven policy presents a tension between what Manning characterized as the rule of power versus the rule of law. For this reason, he argued that the rise of authoritarianism always starts in the immigration sphere.

But there’s hope. Applied to the right problem, the panelists were uniformly confident that technology has a role to play in leveling the playing field, and the potential to become a powerful tool for advocates. The key, according to Jennifer Gonzalez, is to eliminate friction.

Gonzalez founded Torchlight Legal as a startup for justice-tech solutions by coupling apro bono legal services platform with experimental and open source legal API tooling. She is a leading voice in this space.

“Lawyers are a weird users,” she joked. As a group, lawyers tend to be more habit and custom driven than a technology user in other contexts. In the heat of legal battle, if a new application doesn’t work they will quickly move to tried-and-true methods — a challenge for developers looking to iterate toward product-market fit. There’s a lack of patience, understandably.

The weekend when the first travel ban was issued provides a perfect example for the minute-to-minute pressures of this contentious area of the law. Renee Schomp, an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Fenwick and West LLP, and a Senior Staff Attorney with the nonprofit OneJustice, was working in San Francisco when news broke of the Executive Order, disrupting travel across the country. “I have to get to the airport” was all she thought. Racing to SFO with her laptop, she arrived to confusion and chaos. By early Monday morning, along with a band of coalition partners, the OneJustice team had quickly set up a makeshift command center to coordinate fellow lawyers and volunteers, where they worked for days providing counsel and working toward quick victories.

Though the battle is primarily in the courts, the role of non-lawyers in fighting oppressive policies, she emphasized, should not be underestimated. A strong proponent of design thinking, she argued that different perspectives make legal victories possible. From community organizing, to sharing compelling stories with the press “everyone can play a significant role.”

Beyond using technology as a facilitative tool, there are opportunities to incorporate advancements in data science. Rafael Baca served as panel moderator and is committed to building tools that can guide decisions making for lawyers and policymakers alike. A lawyer and computer science graduate student, he’s working to incorporate machine learning algorithms to curtail the backlog in immigration law courts. Just helping set up a database, he told me, would immediately impact thousands. For those interested in making a contribution, “there is plenty of opportunity.”

Note: an open source GitHub repository will be set up due to the strong interest expressed by Austin developers following the panel. The repo will be dedicated for a workflow tool for pro bono advocates, developers, translators, medical workers, social workers and those committed to protecting immigration and civil rights.

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