What We're Up To

Our Document Assembly Line Project has been running full steam since April. The last 2 months have been a whirlwind for our volunteers from around the world and our full-time partners from Suffolk University Law School’s LIT Lab, Greater Boston Legal Services, and Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

We have in total engaged more than 100 volunteers from five continents, although many of them are based right here in Boston, Massachusetts. Two full-time project managers include a volunteer from Code for Boston and a volunteer working 6 hours ahead in Capetown, South Africa.

Running a project like this is a little like laying train tracks in front of you while you’re traveling cross-country at full speed.

We:

  1. Designed a beautiful and user-friendly front page for our forms.
  2. Built code libraries that support each form.
  3. Onboarded, organized, and trained volunteers with widely varying skill sets.
  4. Created training material for our project, the tools we use such as Github, Slack and Trello, and for learning to code with our platform, docassemble: including 13 training videos.
  5. Built standards for our project, with standard questions, field names, and design.
  6. Created a tool that automatically creates a “first draft” of a guided interview with just a labeled PDF.
  7. Engaged volunteer geoengineers to help us implement a court-finding tool that works with the byzantine jurisdiction of the Boston Municipal Court. (No joke: the answer was a detective story that lies in finding ward maps from the 1800s up until today and turning them into GIS layers).
  8. Created 53 labeled, fillable PDFs with draft interviews.
  9. Pushed our first form all the way through to approval by the court: a form that helps tenants get help with emergency housing conditions.
  10. Released additional forms for use by advocates while court approval is pending.
  11. Testing, testing, testing and revising for readability, usability, errors of law, and bugs in the computer’s logic.

Two months of our project have been absorbed in a critical form: the Domestic Violence Complaint for Protection from Abuse petition. This project is not just one form: it’s 8 forms, with a typical completed packet weighing in at 19 pages, and hundreds of individual fields. It’s a beast for someone to complete this emergency form on their own on paper. Four separate coders worked on the forms in pieces, and dozens of volunteers have helped us refine the questions so someone can ask for this critical help in a time-saving, easy to understand and supportive way.

Thanks to existing work and extensive testing with advocates and DV survivors by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, we were able to accelerate this project which on its own could easily have taken a year or more. The DV petition is currently in a limited beta, focusing on the wonderful staff advocates at agencies like SAFEPLAN. Our hope is to open that up to a wider release soon.

Looking ahead this summer, Suffolk has on-boarded 10 new students who are accelerating our project by automating some of the remaining forms in family law, juvenile court, and housing.

Updated: 2020-06-10