Serving Our Veterans Through Hacking

This past March, my team and I put together “Tech For Justice Hackathon+ Veterans”, an event to develop community models and technology tools to improve access to justice for veterans and those who aim to support them.

The hackathon attracted 40 active participants in 6 countries, proposing 20 project ideas which converged into 7 team projects that were presented for judging, of which 4 were winners.

Left to right, Jeffrey L. Thompson, Pamela Thomas, & Christy Leos working on Carry On. (Tech For Justice/IBO Photo)

Was it a success? Definitely. Was it easy? Hell no.

Although I have a sibling in the Navy, a boyfriend who works at a veteran services company, and a family with a history in the Armed Forces, I am not a veteran. My team does consist of two veterans which made this event possible, but even their experience is not the experience of every veteran. So the question was: how do we best serve the veteran community with technology?

In order for you to understand our endeavor, you need to know what Tech For Justice is and what it means to us. If you visit our website, we write that its “an initiative to accelerate the development of technology applications and processes that improve access to justice in human rights, legal aid, and the environment. We aim to support those who need critical help more efficiently, and change processes that no longer serve the people.” Essentially, we use technology to create solutions for those who seek justice and have been historically under served.

Our local, national, and global communities are suffering from a multitude of issues, each one due to politics, shortage of resources, communication barriers, and the legacies left behind by those before us. Determining who needs the most help and then addressing that need is an impossible task at first glance, but that is exactly what we strive to do.

Uniting the Community

This effort began with community outreach to veterans, advocates, and agencies through interviews and focus group sessions which led to the development of a problem set that identified thirteen opportunities where veterans access to justice could be improved through technology. Further discovery occurred through many hours of detailed dialogue, recorded interviews, analyzed vignettes, webinars, and targeted activity such as helping the county conduct their annual point-in-time count to gain greater access to homeless veterans.

U.S. veterans endure much during their time in the military, unfortunately when they enter civilian life again they must face a new set of obstacles, which can be lethal. These are their stories. (Tech For Justice/IBO Video)

When we asked veterans about the problems they faced in their day to day lives, it became clear that finding the truth wasn’t the problem. Our veterans, veteran service providers, nonprofits, and our communities know that military sexual trauma is under reported, undesirable discharge characterizations can destroy a veteran’s opportunity to access to resources, transitioning to civilian life can be incredibly difficult, homelessness is a problem and the list goes on.

Which brings us back to the previous question: how do we best serve the veteran community with technology?

Conducting a Hackathon

After gathering data, knowledge, and perspective from the veterans, we then preceded to plan out a hackathon to create functioning prototypes.

ABA Techshow opened up their floor space which allowed us to have a hackathon in Chicago and Station Houston did so as well, which allowed us to have one in Houston simultaneously. We also decided to have a virtual component to allow those who would have been unable to travel to these locations have an opportunity to build solutions.

Our sponsors Thomson Reuters Westlaw, GitHub, and DirectLaw provided help by sending judges, funding, and participants — their dedication and belief in what we do is more than appreciated.

Our supporters Legal Hackers, ABA Journal, ABA Center For Innovation, Code Platoon, Good Works Houston, Sketch City, and Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida shared the event, and provided judges and subject matter experts.

We established requirements that basically came down to having a prototype, a thorough project plan, and meeting the judging criteria.

The judging criteria was as follows:

  • Usefulness
    How useful is the tool to the veteran community? How well does this solution address the target problem?
  • Completion
    How close to “product” or “completion” has the hack been over the time period allotted to the team? Was the amount of work done during the hackathon significant?
  • Uniqueness
    Given the constraints of the hackathon, how unique & interesting is the idea?
  • Presentation
    Was the purpose of the tool adequately conveyed during the presentation of the prototype?

We then chose judges with a history in the legal, civic, and tech industry who are dedicated to improving our community and the lives of veterans.

Our rules were simple: all project work during the hackathon is open source and free to the public, contributing fairly is key, your idea need not be brand new in order to enter, and no discrimination.

As a reward for our participants hard work and dedication, we had $10,000 in prizes for 4 teams, courtesy of Thomson Reuters Westlaw and their commitment to the veteran community.

Hacking for Veterans

Community members from the legal industry, veteran services, tech industry, and even those plugging in virtually from home hacked their hearts out for a week, starting in Houston then moving to Chicago.

After teams formed and the dust settled, 7 team projects were in full swing.

First Place: Carry On

Carry On is a secure outlet where survivors can maintain anonymity, share stories, and build confidence to take action and get help.

Left to right, Jakie Rice & Phoebe Arquero discussing issues that military sexual trauma survivors face. (Tech For Justice/IBO Photo)

What it does: Carry On offers a chat bot service, forum, an alerting system, and real time chat to connect people and give links to services that can help veterans navigate how to report an assault, get help, and learn about their symptoms. This information is presented as an alternative to the current offerings given by the Department of Defense for those survivors that are worried about reporting into a system that they might have had a bad experience with. Carry On is currently adding additional tech savvy members to the team and applying for grants in order to fund the project. The tech features are also currently being improved, such as the chat bot and alerting system.

The beginning of a project at Station Houston. (Tech For Justice/IBO Photo)

Project description and prototype can be found here.

2nd Place: Veterans Will Center

Veterans Will Center is an estate planning interactive check-up for veterans, which addresses the lack of easy access to will preparation.

What it does: Veterans Will Center is an interactive estate planning checkup to assist veterans in determining what estate planning documents they should have. This checklist can be distributed to will preparation web sites, law firm websites, and other organizations that can provide wills and other estate planning documents to veterans pro bono, for free or at a low cost. Veterans Will Center is complete and a marketing plan is currently being developed to direct veterans to this free service.

Project description and GitHub repository can be found here.

3rd Place: Vet’s Panic Button

The Vet’s Panic Button provides crisis and longer-term conflict resolution, and problem solving strategies that help veterans navigate a successful transition to civilian life.

The Vet’s Panic Button team hard at work. (Tech For Justice/IBO Photo)

What it does: The “panic button” is an app that can quickly link a veteran in crisis with re-missioned veterans who are ready to get to work helping vets to identify appropriate resources. Veterans who are ready to work on critical problem issue areas, like family law or estate planning, will be guided to plain language, intuitive, and robust resources that will allow them to take charge of resolving problems on their own, or with the help of trained professionals (like mediators, mental health professionals, and attorneys.) Veteran Panic Button is currently working on their business plan and building out their team.

Mimi Zemmelman, subject matter expert & organizational strategy extraordinaire. (Tech For Justice/IBO Photo)

Project description and prototype can be found here.

4th Place: The Service Connection

The Service Connection brings experts and veterans together in one place to exchange information about applying for disability benefits.

Left to right, Anton Montano & Henry Bouchot working virtually on The Service Connection. (Tech For Justice/IBO Photo)

Numerous problems that veterans face stem from disabilities and the confusion that plagues the benefits system. When veterans have to deal with issues pertaining to social security to appealing VHA clinical decisions, a tool that makes the system easy to access is more than desirable. The Service Connection have finished the first draft of their business plan, and their next focus is creating a minimum viable product (tentatively) by Veteran’s Day of this year.

What it does:

Project description, GitHub repository, and prototype can be found here.

Honorable Mentions

The Invisibles

The Invisibles is an online environment, maintained and run by U.S. veterans, in which refugee populations can come out of invisibility, establishing a verifiable identity and moving out of refugee status.

What it does: The U.S. veteran community has a unique relationship to the refugee crisis that is, arguably, the most broad and systemic problem facing the world today. The refugee population cries out for a humanitarian effort to ease the pain and generations-long damage being done by displacement, exploitation, and demonization. It also cries out for a way to determine who the refugees are, and whether they pose a likely threat to the societies into which they are being integrated.

Veterans relate to this crisis in two ways. First, they fought and were wounded, physically and emotionally, in the conflicts that in part added to the refugee crisis. Second, they above all citizens have shown a commitment to service and to the maintenance of security for our own society.

If you put these two things together — a sense of connectedness to the crisis and a sense of duty — veterans would seem to be the ideal group to establish a system of identity for the displaced population.

Project description can be found here.

Veterans Get Busy

Veterans Get Busy is a user-friendly, web-based app that gives veterans access to education and employment resources.

What it does: The tool offers users two avenues: educational benefits and resources available by state and even county and a way to connect veterans with volunteer organizations and legal aid. This avenue provides a contact form for the user to complete which can then be sent to a specific organization or list of organizations based on location and type of particular issue the user describes. The current test case is Texas.

The project description and prototype can be found here.

Help on the Way

Help on the Way (H.O.W.) is aimed at veterans who are going through the Veterans Treatment Court system. The goal of H.O.W. is to provide a group support system for those individuals. Veterans can create and join groups where they can chat with other veterans to help keep them accountable to adhering to the court’s rigid guidelines.

The H.O.W. team, made up of coding boot camp students from the Iron Yard, as they plan and code their project. (Tech For Justice/IBO Photo)

One thing veterans lose when re-entering civilian life is the camaraderie of having a shared experience with other individuals. H.O.W. connects veterans who are going through the court process together so they can share their experiences, stories, and most importantly, get help when they need it.

The Veterans Treatment Court model requires regular court appearances, mandatory attendance at treatment sessions, and frequent and random testing for substance abuse. Veterans respond favorably to this structured environment given their past experiences in the Armed Forces. However, a few will struggle and it is exactly those veterans who need H.O.W. the most. Without this structure, these veterans are at a higher risk to re-offend and remain in the criminal justice system.

Project description and prototype can be found here.

Now What?

Since the hackathon, many of the teams have pushed forward with their projects, setting milestones, creating realistic goals, and pursuing funding in order to bring in the right experts needed to turn these hacks into sustainable solutions to the problems U.S. veterans face every day.

If you’re interested in helping veterans through technology, join the teams on our Tech For Justice Community Slack.