Improving effectiveness of existing legal networks using SMS tools

Sean Martin McDonald

Chief Executive Officer FrontlineSMS

Leveraging the ubiquity of mobile phones to extend, connect, and improve dispute resolution services in underserved areas

FrontlineSMS:Legal extends, connects, and improves dispute resolution services in underserved areas using mobile technologies. Our software platform is built on FrontlineSMS, a free, open-source mass text-messaging hub. FrontlineSMS is browser-based software that runs offline and enables users to manage complex communication via SMS, requiring only a computer and a GSM modem or Internet connection. FrontlineSMS:Legal builds on the basic functionality of FrontlineSMS to extend, improve, and coordinate dispute resolution systems, increasing access to justice in the areas that need it most.

FrontlineSMS:Legal enables clients and service providers to connect using the most popular data channel on the planet: text messages. Our software makes it easier to manage remote staff, referral and intake processes, client relationships, and cases, or SMS-based communication. FrontlineSMS:Legal creates digital records, lessening the need for costly and unwieldy paper records. Similarly, by connecting via SMS, we’re able to connect formal and informal dispute resolution systems through improved information and feedback loops. Our software also captures and aggregates data with each client communication, enabling service providers to track key indicators to identify conflict prone regions, the capacity of various resolution mechanisms, and the effectiveness of individual caseworkers. FrontlineSMS:Legal goes beyond digitising legal forms, enabling the collection, aggregation, and analysis of case management and incident data. Through the innovative use of existing SMS gateway technology, we have created a toolset that has the potential to truly transform the way people in underserved communities solve their problems.

1. Can you briefly describe the innovation, in terms of the problem(s) it tries to solve and why is it necessary?

Adriana Suarez is the Coordinator of two Justice House in the Medeillin region of Colombia, where she oversees more than 50 staff members who handle tens of thousands of cases a year. She and her staff funnel hundreds of clients a day through the appropriate lawyer, mediator, human rights ombudsman, or other appropriate service provider. Every day, dozens of people line up in front of these Justice Houses, where they wait for hours to fill out paper forms. Each client is independently referred to an appropriate service provider, where they wait in another line—without a fair and efficient scheduling mechanism, it is all first-come-first-served.

With FrontlineSMS:Legal at each information desk, clients could fill out intake forms and schedule appointments via SMS, saving thousands of hours of travelling and wait time. This would give service providers organised schedules and clients the dignity of an appointment. Perhaps most importantly, Adriana could use the information collected to coordinate her Justice House, service providers, and caseload more effectively.

These needs aren’t limited to Adriana and Colombia—in 2008, the United Nations estimated that 4 billion people lacked “meaningful” access to the rule of law. Around the world, legal aid projects, despite their hard work and incredible dedication, lack the resources to meet the needs of their communities. With nearly six billion mobile phones on the globe at the end of 2011, we enable these dedicated leaders to serve more people, more easily.

2. What makes your innovation unique?

At present, mLegal, or the application of mobile technologies to improve and extend legal services, is an exceptionally small and experimental field. Although there are a number of organisations building legal services technologies, including mobile tools, FrontlineSMS:Legal is the only organisation developing free and open-source tools that integrate SMS interfaces into legal processes.

Further, because of our association with FrontlineSMS, a leading tool in the integration of mobile communication with development context across sectors and around the globe, we have unparalleled access to technological experts and a worldwide user community, whose on-the-ground experience informs our work every step of the way.

It is important to note that our work focuses not on creating new hierarchies or introducing new service providers to the legal empowerment ecosystem, but on using simple communications technology to deepen existing networks and improve the effectiveness of existing service providers. Partnership is a critical part of our strategy. For this reason, we have aimed to make FrontlineSMS:Legal as simple to use as possible, requiring little technical know-how for the ultimate users of the system, and ensuring that its introduction means less, not more complexity in the way cases are handled by legal service providers. These emphases, on the most basic technology rather than the flashy and new, on partnerships and systemic improvement rather than reinvention of the wheel, and on simplicity rather than complexity, make us unique.

3. What triggered the development of the innovation?

FrontlineSMS:Legal was launched by Sean McDonald, an attorney and international development professional. Sean, who specialises in technology, peacebuilding, and alternative dispute resolution, realised early on that the rapid and global spread of mobile phones, especially in the developing world, had a profound transformative potential. Specifically, the same communities that lacked meaningful access to justice and the rule of law were filling with mobile phones and mobile phone users. Cheap and ubiquitous, these mobile phones were changing the way even the world’s poorest people communicated with each other; why shouldn’t they also change they way they interacted with the justice system?

From there, Sean launched FrontlineSMS:Legal, and began building partnerships with legal service providers, researchers, and institutions around the world. This work has brought him to Colombia, Liberia, and Haiti, among others, built a strong network of forward-thinking organisations eager to innovate around mobile-based legal service delivery. At the same time, he has built partnerships with software developers to get an early version of the software tools up and running. From here, FrontlineSMS:Legal is well positioned to be launched in the field, once the right partners and supporters can be identified.

4. Which persons and organisations were involved in the development and what role did they play?

Sean Martin McDonald is the driving force behind FrontlineSMS:Legal, and also serves as the Director of Operations of FrontlineSMS itself. An international development professional with expertise in law, alternative dispute and conflict resolution, and technology, Sean previously worked at MetroStar Systems, where he designed and launched technology products for government and private clients, managed proposal processes, and engaged the non-profit technology community. Prior to MetroStar, he worked at International Relief & Development, where he focused on business development and program management in the Office of Democracy, Governance, and Community Development. He’s also worked for the United States Agency for International Development’s Office of Conflict Mitigation and Management, the Public International Law and Policy Group, the Center for Peacebuilding International, and the Office of Senator Barbara Mikulski.

Throughout the process, Sean has involved potential partners and stakeholders, including Community Conciliators and Justice House staff in Colombia, innovators eager to use mobile to solve a host of social problems in Liberia, and the members of KOFAVIV in Haiti, a support organization for survivors of rape in Port-au-Prince. These opportunities to see the way justice services and dispute resolution work on the ground, the obstacles providers face and the ubiquity of the phones that could be the solution, have been critical to the development of our project to point where it is now.

5. What kind of resistance have you encountered and how have you overcome it?

The biggest source of resistance to the type of innovation FrontlineSMS:Legal represents is from legacy legal service providers, especially those associated with the formal legal system or government ministries. Like many entrenched institutions, these organisations are intrinsically resistant to change, and often wary of new, ‘game-changing’ innovations. Legal systems are institutionally designed to be slow to change and adapt, even where there is strong political will and motivation. Said simply, even in the best of circumstances, it’s difficult to change the way that we peacefully resolve disputes. And there are very, very few legal systems that operate in the best of circumstances.

More explicitly, there are issues of funding, corruption, capacity, politics, and adaptability.

To overcome this kind of resistance, we focus on building partnerships at the levels where our innovation will do the most good; most often, this means at the grassroots, with people like Adriana in Colombia, but can also mean with international organizations or aid agencies, who see the value of new innovations and have the flexibility to experiment. Once we can prove the value of what we’re doing, through well-evaluated pilot projects and thoroughly documented case studies, we can significantly reduce the risk for institutions who may be hesitant now.

6. How did you make the goals realistic and attainable, and when will quick wins be available?

We started by building on an existing toolset- FrontlineSMS. As our core software has demonstrated, time and time again, integrating mobile interaction into an organization’s day-to-day life increases the reach and accessibility of what they do, while saving time and money. We have capitalized on this by piloting the core toolset with several legal and quasi-legal service providers, demonstrating value and gains during the intake process and through client management.
In addition, we’ve begun develop an early version of FrontlineSMS:Legal, leading to the quick delivery of a usable and testable prototype product. From there, smart and rigorous pilots are a key part of our approach. By working in smaller, focused pilots to start, we can build a case for the substantial process improvements that come along with the use of our tools, which makes growth in usage that much easier to attain.

7. Will the innovation affect other organisations in the chain and if that is the case, how will it affect them?

FrontlineSMS:Legal is at its most effective when it affects and improves the work of every link in the justice supply chain, from individual complainant or service seeker to the formal ministries of justice. By digitizing case communication and case data, and communicating key information via SMS, informal justice networks or rural service providers can instantly share information with formal institutions, and national organizations can aggregate incident or resolution data from around the country. That said, the data will be available in easy to process form, and the only real change in day-to-day workflows will be among those staff members working directly with clients, who are managing cases on the new FrontlineSMS:Legal hub.

8. How was the development funded and what were reasons be the reasons for the financing organisation?

Early funding for the development of FrontlineSMS:Legal has come in the form of pro bono development support from Thoughtworks and internal support from FrontlineSMS itself. Looking forward, FrontlineSMS:Legal fits into the broader business development approach of our entire organisation, which mixes sector-specific NGO and philanthropic support with intensive, paid consulting and system design support for larger or more complex implementations on the ground.

9. Can you name 3 to 5 characteristics of the innovation that are most essential to make it work?

  • Ease of Use: Even if our tools offer amazing features, their value to users is based on their simplicity. This is especially true when it comes to the individual seeking legal services. Interactions over SMS must feel natural, simple to follow, and create little disruption compared to the status quo.
  • Data Integrity: In remote legal interaction, ensuring the identity of the person with whom you’re speaking, and the validity of their statements, is a major concern. For this reason, we recommend that mLegal play a supplementary role in legal services provision, and that face-to-face interaction not be entirely eliminated.
  • Obvious and Fast Value to Service Providers: Given the inherent resistance to change among the established justice sector, it’s critical that the introduction of an innovation like FrontlineSMS:Legal deliver rapid, obvious value to the organizations that begin using it. That means real, observable reductions in case resolution time, real reductions in transportation and other logistical costs, and substantial improvements in client and staff satisfaction.
  • Buy-In to Innovation: New technology, like any new tools, cannot be forced on an organization. For that reason, it’s important that, before the introduction of FrontlineSMS:Legal, there is a real appetite for change and experimentation among the leaders and staff of partner organizations.

10. How do you measure whether it is a successful innovation?

FrontlineSMS:Legal will record and measure service administration based on the National Center for State Courts High Performance Indicators. These are traditional court administration indicators, which include metrics like total case volume, speed of resolution, cost of adjudication, recidivism, and overall satisfaction. The first two months of data will set the baseline for these measures in each implementation, and we will measure progress against those baselines on an ongoing basis. Since overall system efficiency is our primary goal, during early pilot implementations we will also take steps to measure transportation and other costs associated with acquiring legal services, and see how access to SMS-based adjudication helps reduce them.

11. How many people or organisations benefit from this innovation now?

There are a number of organisations and governments currently using FrontlineSMS to provide legal and quasi-legal services. We have built-in registration for the newest version of FrontlineSMS, but are still processing the data that comes from it to get an early view of impact metrics. Although not specific to legal services, FrontlineSMS has been downloaded more than 30,000 times, is currently being used in more than 80 countries to reach more than 8 million people (as reported by our users in response to a survey).

12. How many people or organisations could potentially benefit your innovation now and in the future? Can or will the innovation be used internationally and how do you overcome cultural differences?

The basic idea of mobilized legal services is globally applicable, and is not limited to any one country or regional context. Our basic scaling model includes starting with a pilot project in one country, looking towards national expansion, and repeating in a number of target countries where we have established relationships and significant interest. Because our tools and services are free, easy to translate into any language or cultural context, there are few limits on growth. However, because of the complexity of legal services provision, the first few implementations will require more hands-on support from our team, meaning the pace of growth at first will be more deliberate.

13. Can you quantify the financial benefits? Cost savings, additional income or otherwise.

The financial benefits are easy to quantify, but highly contextual.

Both service providers and service seekers will realize the financial benefits of mobile integration in legal services. Completing rote administrative tasks like intake, referral, and certain follow-ups via SMS significantly cuts down on administration time for the service provider, as well as travel time for clients, saving money on fuel or transit fare and allowing them to avoid skipping a day at work. Likewise, since records completed by SMS are automatically digitized and structured for easy analysis, offices will save the staff time now spent on data entry or trying to make sense of paper records. This will reduce waste and increase the amount of time staff members can spend actually providing legal services, potential increasing daily revenue (if there is a fee associated with each client served), or reducing human resources costs. We envision a fully streamlined, SMS-enabled justice system, with substantial savings up and down the value chain.

14. Is the innovation financially viable and sustainable and if yes, how?

Our business model, as described above, will be a combination of philanthropic funding for start-up and the development of free resources, and fee-based consulting for the implementation of new systems. This is a business model that FrontlineSMS as an organization has used successfully across sectors, and the interest we have received in the legal sector already has convinced us it will lead to a financial sustainable line of business. Essentially, FrontlineSMS:Legal will provide fee-based adoption and change management facilitation, through ongoing custom development, training, and consultation. We are using these services to create business-driven lines of revenue, in order to ensure financial stability once any grant-funded period end. Since our sustainability and scaling model is built on service provision, we believe the pilot projects that early funding supports will serve as a valuable proof-of-concept for our tools and drive adoption throughout the legal community.

By the same token, we will continue to update our tools in two ways: First, as specific clients needs necessitate the development of new features, and second, allowing internal brainstorming to drive new innovation. In the first case, organizational clients would fund new innovation and custom development, the fruits of which we, as an open-source project, would then make available to the public at large. In the second case, we would either seek out grant funding for our new ideas, or, if they were a major priority, we could use internal development resources to build them. In either case, this project benefits from its association with an establish, leading social enterprise, both in terms of building awareness among philanthropic donors and attracting a potential paying client base.

15. Did you receive any recognition?

The core FrontlineSMS platform and team have been widely recognized, winning recognition from the Tech Awards, Pop!Tech, Ashoka, and substantial financial support from the Omidyar Network, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation. Our work has also won the 2010 Vodafone Wireless Innovation Challenge, along with the Knight News Challenge in 2011.

FrontlineSMS:Legal, while still in the early phases of development, has received substantial acknowledgement of its own. Sean McDonald’s has been invited to participate in State Department-funded TechCamps around the world, sharing his expertise on mobile legal services, and his article, ‘The Case for mLegal,’ was published in Volume 6, Issue 1 of the Innovations Journal. Sean is an affiliate at Harvard’s Berkman Center, a technology advisor to the Clinton Global Initiative, an expert on Democratic Governance with UNDP, and advises several other non-profits.

16. What lessons did you learn along the way that could be useful to others?

We have learned a lot through the process of going out into the world, visiting with potential partners, and seeing firsthand just how tools like FrontlineSMS:Legal could make a difference. First, we learned that so many of the challenges associated with legal empowerment and access to justice come down to challenges of communication. Remote and poor communities, traditionally the people most vulnerable to abuse and exclusion, face the longest distances and highest when trying to access institutions or basic services. The international community is candid about the fact that after decades of programming and billions of dollars, the rule of law has yet to reach the bottom of the pyramid. As a result, the poor remain unable to defend their rights, livelihoods, homes, and families. Faster, better communication has the potential to largely eliminate distance as a limiting factor on legal services provision and reach the most remote communities that have so struggled up to now.

Second, to evaluate the value of a new innovation in legal services, a conversation with the service providers on the ground, the ones who actually do the day-to-day client work, is far more useful than talking with high-level leaders of institutions. At the grassroots level, staff members know the challenges they and their clients face, and grasp immediately the value that new tools may or may not have for them. Also, the capacity and dedication of these grassroots justice workers is likely far behind what high-level ministers might imagine, and their passion for trying new things, trying anything that might make justice for the people they serve a bit easier to come by, is often unparalleled.

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