USING TECHNOLOGY TO VISUALIZE CHANGE
As part of its project curriculum, Columbia Law School’s Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic engages in an ongoing collaboration with NYC’s Project FAIR to innovate and implement greater access to legal help and resources for the low-income and underrepresented members of the New York City community.
Project FAIR (Fair Hearing Assistance, Information & Referral) comprises a consortium of attorneys, paralegals, public benefits experts, legal advocates and law students working to ensure that individuals who seek public assistance, food stamps, and Medicaid are able to effectively exercise their due process rights to access these services. Project FAIR is the sole independent provider of free legal information and service located on the premises of the main hearing site at 14 Boerum Place in Brooklyn where approximately 500 hearings are held each day.
Project FAIR is unique in that it does not have a standalone office. Volunteer attorneys and advocates chair a table at the hearing site, where they “rely on technology as the glue to hold operations together- providing the calendaring system to ensure the help table is staffed by someone every weekday, as well as housing the online database that serves as the primary data collection point from the individuals who go to the table,” says Columbia Clinical Professor of Law Conrad Johnson, who oversees FAIR’s collaboration with the Clinic.
In addition to creating Project FAIR’s vast knowledge database containing all of its training and reference resources, Columbia’s clinic also created and maintains an online database which contains records and information collected by the volunteers from all those who visit the help table. This database now contains more than 10,000 entries and enables the volunteers to “track systemic trends in real time,” says Professor Johnson.
Through their work with FAIR, the database, and participating advocates, clinic students learned that for more than a year, those seeking to apply for or maintain their public assistance benefits were forced to wait for hours outside of many of the City’s welfare “job centers”. Lines at many of the centers often spanned blocks and persisted in rain or shine, summer heat or winter cold. Last October the concern grew that as winter set in, it would be dangerous for individuals, many with children at their side, to be standing out in the cold for hours as they waited their turn.
Technology in Action
Prompted by this growing problem, clinic students Chris Watts, CLS ’13 and Ben Kopelman, CLS ’12, joined Professor Johnson on a visit to one of the centers on Dec. 5th, 2011. There, they encountered a long line of individuals waiting outside of the center. That day they filmed a video of the overcrowding, and interviewed those waiting in line:
The Legal Aid Society used the clinic students’ video as part of its effort to raise awareness about the overcrowding issue. The Wall Street Journal was the first media outlet to report on the issue when it published an article titled “Welfare Lines Overflow.” Similar stories were subsequently published by New York Magazine, NY Times and Social Service Employees Union. Shortly thereafter, the WSJ published a follow-up article to its first column wherein NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg acknowledged the pressing issue of the overcrowding at job centers across the city, and stated his pledge to work on improving the problem.
Spurred by the widespread media coverage, the City Council held hearings on the overcrowding problem in January of 2012. Council member Gale Brewer, who chaired the hearings, showed the Clinic’s video as her opening statement to begin the hearings.
Professor Johnson was asked to testify at the city council hearing. The day before the hearing, he returned to the job center he and his students had visited on Dec. 5th. To his surprise, the line outside of the center was gone. He called several advocate colleagues who were also working on the issue and they too reported that lines outside other job centers had also disappeared. It seemed that the HRA had finally enacted measures that eliminated the lines outside of the job centers. Asked of his impression of the experience, Professor Johnson speaks about the power and importance of using technology in contemporary law practice. “It was a visual story; we were able to alert the media and the public by capturing images that both proved the existence of the problem and conveyed the hardships it created in ways that words alone could not. We also got results far more quickly and effectively than we would have using conventional advocacy.” He goes on: “Using tools of the digital age allowed for relief mechanisms that were not available to people who relied on traditional methods.”
While the story comes with many lessons, the most important is that technology not only creates greater access to our legal and judicial processes: it is used in creative ways to reach and influence the political process and to aid the members of our community who need help most.