Student team develops mobile app for Legal Aid

Written by Vanderbilt University junior Economics major Sasha Pines

The introduction of project-based University Courses at The Wond’ry will completely revolutionize the way we learn at Vanderbilt, as experiential learning is simply the best model for job training. Technology projects are inherently interdisciplinary, requiring clear communication and organized initiative. Students are granted the opportunity to transfer and fuse a diverse set of knowledge to innovate something tangible. There are few college assignments more rewarding.

Eager to learn relevant and transferable skills, I signed up for a University Course last spring entitled “Solving Big Problems with Mobile Cloud Computing,” lead by Doug Schmidt, professor of computer science and computer engineering, and Jules White, assistant professor of computer science. But, how could an economics major with zero coding experience prove valuable in an engineering class?

Project groups were designed in accordance with real world engineering teams: engineering students coded while Arts and Science students served as the liaison between the client and coders. A few weeks into the semester, we were matched with a client and tasked with building a mobile cloud-based product to fulfill our client’s needs.

My group, consisting of two undergraduate engineers and one graduate engineer, worked with Legal Aid, a private non-profit that provides free civil case legal services to low-income Tennesseans. Our challenge was to create an easy-to-use informational platform for individuals of lower socioeconomic status navigating the debt collection process and to film a demo video showcasing the final product. Quality legal advice is prohibitively expensive, denying many equal access to fair representation under America’s legal system. The task of using technology to solve this problem for thousands of families provided a new level of motivation for my team.

Before beginning the project, Professors White and Schmidt spent countless hours warning us of the many inefficiencies of coding projects. Assignments that should take one month to complete can turn into year-long ordeals due to the simple challenge of poor communication. In my experience, these warning signs rang true.

Our direct client was not a Legal Aid representative but two Vanderbilt law professors who had previously written the relevant legal content with their law students. As you might imagine, this took cross-collaboration to a new level as engineering, humanities and law students united to create a product beyond any of our individual competencies. It was awesome, but it also made communication between the various project representatives extremely tricky.

The law professors expressed interest in creating a discussion platform for the Legal Aid website, and our team spent weeks researching various comment hosting services and brainstorming various features to engage users. Once we communicated our findings to the Legal Aid team, we learned that the management required to maintain these online discussions was actually unfeasible. As they say, too many cooks spoil the broth!

To streamline the process and maintain productivity in spite of setbacks, we implemented Agile Software Development as learned in class. We converted platform features into user stories and worked incrementally in a system of prioritized iterations. While I organized and communicated the requests of our clients (in exceptionally long email chains), the engineering students worked hard to actualize the vision. By using the Agile movement, we were able to respond quickly to unpredictability and build a minimum viable product (MVP) in just a few weeks!

This course was undoubtedly a defining moment in my college experience. The volume of cross-college interaction between varying disciplines and professional levels would not have transpired without the structure this course provided. Beyond gaining relevant work experience, I was also granted a special opportunity to help others. The website’s unique design makes accessing legal information easy, so Tennesseans can make smarter decisions during the legal process and hopefully save thousands of dollars in unfairly claimed delinquent debt.

I would highly encourage students from any and all backgrounds to take advantage of the new University Courses, explore the Wond’ry’s exciting resources, and dabble in the world of innovation.