I’m in Maryland this week for the Legal Service Corporations’s invitational Summit on Technology and Access to Justice. I’m excited — it should be a great discussion on the ways that existing and emerging technologies can help legal aid organizations provide more access to information and support.

The organizers of the summit are using an outline of emerging and interesting technologies that we created to form the structure of a whole group of sessions. It seems like they resonated really well with the legal aid community, so I thought I’d publish the list for those who are looking to brainstorm ways that new technologies can address some of their needs. Here it is:

Text Messaging

Text messages—sometimes called SMS messages—are short messages sent between mobile phones. These messages are usually limited to 160 characters. This limitation has led to the development of a shorthand language of abbreviations designed to conserve characters. (For example, “you” is “U” and “for” is “4.”) Initially, text messages were also limited to text, but can now often include images, sounds and videos.

Mobile Web

Americans are accessing the Internet with mobile devices in increasing numbers. This area continues to advance rapidly, and ideas that sounded like science fiction not that long ago are now gaining widespread traction with the public. Three areas to look at more closely are location-based applications, augmented reality and near-field communication.

Location-based applications provide users with information based on their geographic location. For example, foursquare  and Facebook  allow users to “check in” at a specific location, or announce their arrival using the application. Organizations with physical locations can also use the apps to offer specials and information for people who check in. Augmented reality uses technology to overlay additional information over the real-world environment—for example, if you use your smartphone camera to view the Eiffel Tower, you might be presented with information about the tower, hear an interview with someone who helped build it, or see pictures of the construction. Lastly, near-field communication uses radio frequencies to allow mobile devices to communicate with each other. One current focus of development for this technology is instant payment systems, which let people pay for products or services using cell phones instead of cash or credit cards.

Bar Codes

Bar codes, or machine-readable representations of data, aren’t new—first developed after World War II, they came into popular use in the late 1970s.  What is new is that many people are now carrying portable barcode readers with them: smartphone cameras. By using the camera to “scan” a code, people can access data about a product, service, organization, or anything else.

Codes include the Universal Product Code (UPC), which most people are familiar with from the grocery store, and QR codes, the 2D square bar codes that have been gaining popularity and are used on everything from business cards to event posters to magazine ads.

Maps and Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

Collecting and displaying data in a map format allows people to more easily see significant data relationships that are otherwise difficult to comprehend. Applied, this might be as simple as plotting points on a map, or it might involve complex systems—generally called Geographic Information Systems (GIS)—that let you color code regions, layer different information and create your own maps. For instance, using a GIS system you could plot the ethnicity of families per household and view that against income levels per city.

Data Visualization

Data visualizations use data in visual formats to tell a story, allowing people to more quickly and easily see patterns and understand the underlying data. This process has grown in popularity as graphic design tools become more available to the public, and large amounts of data become more available—and easier to process.

Predictive Analysis and Expert Systems

Organizations often accumulate a lot of data. Analyzing that data for trends, and using it to predict possible future outcomes or to provide in-depth information to staff or constituents could save programs money, or help them craft plans that attack the root cause of the problem.

Expert systems use the information acquired through time and experience to help guide those less familiar with a topic—for example, these types of systems can be useful to help volunteers answer more-complicated questions than they could otherwise, or to guide people through complex processes. Predictive analysis goes a step beyond data visualization to help organizations make decisions based on large amounts of data. For instance, how much time is it likely to take to serve a particular client based on the organization’s experience with similar clients? How likely is someone to donate based on specific demographic information?

Social Media Listening

Social media and networking is often used by nonprofits for fundraising, marketing and service. The access-to-justice community has been using these tools for fundraising and marketing, but as a sector has not been as comfortable exploring how social media could be used to identify those who need services, or to provide services directly.


For those people who are connected, the Internet is the natural place to turn for training materials and education, and eLearning is now commonplace. However, it’s moved beyond simply posting training materials and videos or conducting a webinar, and today, more and more organizations are talking about “gamifying” learning—adding game mechanics—to make it more enjoyable.