A guest contribution from Jenny Wondracek, RIPS-SIS Chair
At the AALL Annual Meeting this past July, RIPS-SIS joined together with GD-SIS, CS-SIS, and SR-SIS to sponsor the AALL Hackathon. The Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI) also provided much time, many ideas, and moral support in planning the hackathon, plus they gave us a web portal to post information about the hackathon and the datasets that we recommended.
What is a Hackathon?
At a Hackathon, people who are well versed in the public’s information needs get together with those who can program, build user interfaces, and manipulate databases. In the case of the AALL Hackathon, the goal was to bring law librarians, who know the public’s legal needs, together with technologists to work with government data, building new information resources and making current resources more accessible. While we ended up with more librarians than technologists, we saw the teams collaborate on great projects and the librarians really stretch their technology skills.
What was created?
With only about eight hours in which to work, we knew that the teams would probably not finish their projects. Four innovative projects were started, including one that actually was completed. These projects are:
- A script called PROXYsearch that sits on top of the South Carolina Judicial Opinions website and creates an integrated search interface, providing improved access to the judicial opinions. The working script has been posted to github:
- A website that harvests data from all fifty states’ web-based administrative codes, cleans the data, reformats it into a consistent format, and provides public access to all of the states’ codes. The team finished one state and plans to continue with the others.
- A website that provides public access to New York Department of Education opinions in an easy to locate and accessible format. This team also wants to provide editorial information about the opinions in plain English to help laypersons better understand decisions that may affect their children.
- Use of the data from the AALL inventory of state legal documents to compare government document authentication and preservation. http://www.hackathon.lawlibrarian.org/
Was there a winner?
GD-SIS donated a $250 prize. We invited three judges to join us for the hackathon, especially the project demonstrations. The judges were Mary Alice Baish, Superintendent of Documents for the Government Printing Office; Marie Concannon, Chair of the Depository Library Council and Government Documents & Data Services Librarian for the University of Missouri; and Elmer Masters, Director of Internet Development for CALI. After watching the demonstrations and discussing the results, the judges awarded the prize to the team that created PROXYsearch for the South Carolina Judicial Opinions website. The team used some of the money to go out for drinks as a team and donated the rest to a nonprofit run by one of the team members.
The goal of the AALL Hackathon was to start a dialog about information resources and what we as librarians can do to help make information more accessible to the public. Based on the following anonymous comments from the evaluations, the hackathon was a true success.
“I learned more about government information resources, where to find them, and how to use them. I also learned how such information can be completely inaccessible online because it is not arranged in a way that is intuitively searchable. This will help make my own online work (such as creating LibGuides) better organized, and also help me to understand how to guide patrons in using such disorganized/inaccessible information resources in the future.”
“[I appreciate the] time [spent] on a focused project with a new group of people – an inspiration for some new ideas and the chance to network with people who I might not have met otherwise.”
“[I gained a] greater understanding of the possibilities for civic hacking.”
A proposal for a second hackathon in Philadelphia is already drafted. With a stronger civic hacking community on the east coast, the 2nd AALL Hackathon will hopefully attract more technologists and be an even bigger success.