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Legal Hackathon produces ‘Freecog’ app for defendants

Alex Crowley, a student at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, wrote out the Freecog team’s business-model canvas. Photo by Nicholas Phillips

Zack Wotawa, an employee of Daugherty Business Solutions and member of the Freecog team, gets in some last-minute tweaks before the presentation to the judges. Photo by Nicholas Phillips

The Freecog team fleshed out its app concept on the wall. Photo by Nicholas Phillips

Mark Surico, director of business development at Neota Logic, was a judge on the hackathon panel, along with Anita Campbell of HighQ, Bob Newmark of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner and Drew Winship of Juristat. Photo by Nicholas Phillips

The winning team behind Freecog, from left: Lauren Hilton, Joshua Veal-Briscoe, Michael Sato, Alex Crowley, Tamra Berger, Zack Wotawa, and Luke Peterson. Photo by Nicholas Phillips

It was a weekend of brainstorms, coffee, programming, stress, cold pizza, naps, more coffee and Power-Point presentations, but in the end, there was new legal tech — and one project emerged victorious.

By the night of Feb. 24, two teams in St. Louis each had produced an entry for the Global Legal Hackathon — an event that unfolded simultaneously in 46 cities worldwide wherein lawyers, programmers and others had only one weekend to devise a tech solution to a legal-practice problem.

Some 6,000 people participated internationally across several hundred teams, the organizers said afterward, with certain locations drawing as many as 200 participants.

In St. Louis, the crowd at the T-REX incubator downtown was more modest — fewer than 20 joined the fray — but each of the two teams created intriguing solutions, said Robert L. Newmark, one of the four judges tasked with choosing a winner to advance in mid-March to the second round of the global contest.

“It was not an easy decision,” said Newmark, who is also managing partner of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner in St. Louis, the firm that hosted the local event.

Ultimately, the judges tapped “Freecog” to advance. Freecog is an app developed by St. Charles District Defender Michael Sato along with several employees of St. Louis-based Daugherty Business Solutions and a student from Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.

According to the team’s pitch, Freecog is a cheap alternative to ankle bracelets. Currently, pretrial criminal defendants who are released on their own recognizance — or “recogged” in court slang — must wear an ankle bracelet to stay on the court’s radar. Wearing that device can carry a stigma, not to mention a fee that can burden low-income defendants.

With Freecog, defendants can check in on their cell phones via two-step verification. First, they receive a randomly-generated five-digit code. Then, they video-record themselves saying the code out loud into their cell-phone camera. That data is authenticated by facial-recognition and voice-recognition software from Amazon Web Services. It also logs a timestamp and a GPS location. All of this information allows the app to verify for the court whether the defendant is meeting the conditions of release.

“We appreciated how big the population was that would be impacted by it,” said Newmark. “It also had a social-justice aspect that impressed us.”

During the presentation, the panel — which also included Mark Surico, director of business development at Neota Logic, Anita Campbell, senior consultant at HighQ, and Drew Winship, founder and CEO of Juristat — expressed reservations about defendants gaming Freecog’s system. They wondered aloud about “deepfakes,” or digital manipulation of a person’s voice and face.

“The overwhelming majority of criminal defendants don’t have access to that technology,” Sato said. He pointed out that a certain number of defendants already violate the conditions of their release or pick up a new charge in the current system.

“This isn’t going to prevent that at any greater rate, but it’s updating the technology,” Sato said. “Once this technology exists it’s unreasonable not to use it.”

The other team, comprised of attorneys and staff from BCLP, Thompson Coburn and students from Saint Louis University School of Law, produced a web tool called “B-CEEN,” an acronym for Birth Certificate Education and Navigation. The tool is designed to enable same-sex spouses anywhere in the United States to quickly gather customized legal information in their state for handling the birth certificate of their baby if it is born through IVF, surrogacy or other methods.

“We are hopeful that B-CEEN will be implemented,” Newmark said after the event, adding that he was impressed at how far both teams got in such a short window of time.

“I think there’s an opportunity for more people to engage,” Newmark said. “There’s a lot of creative energy here.”

Indeed, it was evident that the long hours and late nights not only forged a bond inside the Freecog team but also at times led the members down some philosophical rabbit holes that ended in wisdom.

“It’s pretty humbling,” Sato joked, “to think you have a handle on your profession and your life and your world, and then you meet people with all these skill sets who really make you question your idea of what a sandwich is.”

 

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the positions of certain hackathon participants from BCLP and Thompson Coburn. We regret the error.

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