Hacking for justice with South Africa’s most talented

Forty-six cities, 24 countries, 5,000 people, 56 hours, hundreds of new legal tech innovations. They’re the key numbers to take away from Global Legal Hackathon, an annual event convened by justice innovators around the world. Knowing the budding ecosystem for entrepreneurship in South Africa, our team operating in Southern Africa were convinced that they should bring it back to Johannesburg for a second time this year.

The 2018 event in Johannesburg, South Africa, was a roaring success. Five teams came together over one weekend to build prototype applications for improving ‘access to justice’, or the ‘business of law’. By Sunday evening they had a polished pitch, complete with user validations, market testing and a demonstration of their idea. The runner-up went on to win our own regional Innovating Justice Challenge and take part in the HiiL Justice Accelerator, supported by both financial and non-financial means.

Scaling up

This year’s Global Legal Hackathon was a much bigger event for South Africa than in 2018. Much of its success was thanks to our partner, Baker McKenzie, which turned its plush, leather-chaired boardrooms over to coffee swilling, pizza eating hackers for the weekend. The firm’s hospitality made it possibly the most unexpectedly luxurious hackathon in the world, which we saw reflected in the quality of pitches delivered on Sunday evening.

Participants came from a wide variety of backgrounds including software developers, lawyers, TV and media workers, activists from fellow NGOs such as Amnesty and, of course, students. On Friday evening, engaging speakers from Stats SA, Open Societies Foundation and the Thuli Madonsela Foundation about the need for justice innovation in South Africa. They set the scene for the crucial role hackers and justice innovators have in filling the gaps between demand for justice services and provision.

On Saturday the more typical ‘Hackathon’ activities began. If you haven’t been to a Hackathon before, the process is disarmingly simple. After the round of scene-setting speeches, individuals had the opportunity to pitch and idea that they wanted to work on for the next two days, and everyone else voted with their feet – moving to join the team to which they felt their skills and experience would be most valuable. Over the course of the weekend, HiiL hosted workshops on pitch presentation and the ‘Lean Startup Method’, encouraging teams to experiment and gather user feedback. One group was paying close attention: by lunchtime on Saturday a procession of people filed through Baker McKenzie’s foyer for one-on-one user validation sessions. By the end, the team could claim to be at “first revenue” as visitors offered small amounts of cash to be signed up to the application.

Pitching to win

On Sunday afternoon, eight teams pitched ideas to a panel of judges from The Embassy of The Netherlands in South Africa, Open Societies Foundation, AfricaLII and – of course – Baker McKenzie. We saw presentations on lawyer-matching services, a TV show (and helpline) that answered justice questions and a transcription service for taking police statements in African languages. One team had a functioning chatbot that could answer legal queries in isiZulu, another was looking at helping people arrested at night find representation.

The overall winner of the event in South Africa came via a team from LexisNexis, who had flown from Cape Town just to join us. Its application, Kagiso (the Setswana word for “peace”), is an online mediation platform designed to help parties find a resolution outside of the courts. Although Kagiso didn’t quite make it through the second round of Global Legal Hackathon and on to the New York final (which takes place on 4 May), we have high hopes for its future success and will be watching all of the participants closely.

The energy from this event gives us so much inspiration to keep finding and supporting the worlds best justice innovators. Events like these supported by great partners highlight the fantastic solutions coming up for user-friendly justice. Together we will reach our goal to empower 150 million people to prevent and resolve their most pressing justice problems by 2030.