MassAccess is proud to sponsor some projects for the National Day of Civic Hacking. This is a day for volunteers around greater Boston to contribute to efforts to enhance access to justice and serve other critical needs through computer programming and related projects.

MassAccess is a project that helps Massachusetts residents access the courts at a time when in-person court services are impossible or unsafe. Court users can fill out forms online with step-by-step guidance that are then directly filed with court clerks electronically. Two examples of critical needs: survivors of domestic violence can use our forms to request a restraining order or for their abuser to leave their shared home. Tenants who are living in dangerous housing conditions can file a petition with the court to get immediate repairs.

The court can be a confusing place to navigate. There are many terms and names that are unfamiliar to users of the court. One of the fundamental issues is finding the right court to file in, and then getting to that court.

We have 4 projects that support our mission on the MassAccess project by improving our database of courts with features that help users of the court identify, locate, and use the correct terms to refer to the proper court for their. We have 3 other data-related projects that also tie in to improving all of our forms.

Most of the projects should allow volunteers to donate as much or as little time as they have while still making a valuable contribution to the overall project.

Court database projects

Four projects relate to the MACourts repository. Volunteers can contribute to all 4 projects by doing research, filling in a Google Sheet, editing JSON files, or by editing Python code.

Project 1 - research the "filing address" for each court

Github issue

Some "courts" have multiple "sittings". For example, the Eastern Housing Court sits in Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, and Woburn. However, if someone wants to file a physical document, they can only file that document in the Boston location.

This project would have volunteers identify the filing address for every court in our database, and add it as additional metadata.

Project 2 - Research to find the building names for each court

Github issue

When people are picking the court they want to send a form to, they often only know the court by the building name (which is not always the same as the court name). Sometimes multiple courts are housed in the same building and one court does have the name of the building while the others don't.

This project would add the building name as metadata for each court.

Project 3 - Add links to court website as metadata

Github issue has a page for most court sittings (although not all). Where we have a webpage to link, it would be helpful to add this as metadata in our database.

Project 4 - Add metadata that says if the court accepts criminal cases or civil cases, or both

Github issue

Some courts only hear criminal cases, and not civil. When helping someone choose a court to file in, we want to leave these courts off of the list. In other cases, we want to show the criminal courts only. Metadata will help us show users more relevant results.

Project 5 - Research to create a database of town clerks

We would like to build a database of town clerks so that when someone needs to contact their town (for example, to obtain a marriage license), we can provide them the correct clerk based on their address. This list is a very good starting point, but it focuses on the town election clerk. Some cities are large enough that they have a different general number, and the elections office is the wrong place to call with a general query.

This project would take the Secretary of the Commonwealth's list as a starting point and clean it up for the handful of cities that are "wrong" for our purpose.

Project 6 - Lookup a case on MassCourts is a public website that lists information about court dockets. Often we want to help people confirm information that is listed in MassCourts. It has strict terms of use and a captcha. The project concept is to create an API to lookup a case by party name and court, one at a time (not in bulk). We may want to provide an iFrame or other means to allow the user to answer a captcha to return the one relevant result. The API only needs to return a link to the relevant page on MassCourts as MVP. Ideally, we could return a little bit of relevant information to help someone confirm it is the right case and get information like docket number, status, etc.

There is no starting code for this project. Ideally, it will result in some Python code that can be integrated with docassemble. Experience with the "requests" library would be a plus.

Project 7 - list of local DV resources based on zip code/city name

Github issue

This project would enhance the 209A Domestic Violence Restraining Order petition by presenting users with city-specific resources when they complete the form.

There is a good existing database of these resources. The idea is to provide a very light Python interface to the existing database, not reinvent the wheel.