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Using Mobile Phones for Service Delivery webinar


Hello everyone! Yesterday (3 October) LSNTAP and Idealware held a very interesting webinar on Using Mobile Phones for Service Delivery. Some great panelists discussed innovative uses of mobile phone, and particularly smart phone technology for the legal services field. These panelists were:

                Laura Quinn, Executive Director of Idealware
                Kate Bladow, Powered Pursuits
                Liz Keith, Pro Bono Net
                Vince Morris, Arkansas Legal Services Partnership

To begin, Laura Quinn gave us some statistics on mobile phone usage. For example, 87 percent of American adults have a cell phone, and 42 percent of those cell owners have a smart phone. If your programming focuses on young people, you might like to know that a whopping 66 percent of people 18-29 years old have a smart phone. As you may have guessed, these phones are used not just to make calls, but to text, to visit mobile websites and applications, to check email, and more.

At this point, Kate Bladow added that phones are used across all demographics. Even in low-income areas, mobile phones have a high ownership rates; to the homeless population, cell phones are a great way to stay in touch with family and friends. Many owners have found texting to be more cost-efficient than a traditional phone call. Some special programs even hand out cell phones based on qualification for government benefits.

Liz Keith also added that in rural areas like Montana, people may be on the go and not near a desktop computer all the time – or even own a desktop computer – making mobile Internet access even more important.

From here, Laura Quinn talked about a few things to think about when you get into providing mobile services. First, the difference between mobile sites and mobile apps: sites can be visited anytime the user has Internet service, and can be either a mobile-friendly version of your regular website, or a specifically-built mobile site. If it’s the former, you should think about how your site looks on a phone (try a site such as to see), paying attention to the top left corner of the screen – what the user will see when landing on the page.

Alternately, you can build an application. Apps must be downloaded in advance, indicating a higher level of investment on the part of the user. There are some simple app-building tools out there in the $100-$200 range (check out AppMakr, Swep Apps, and MobBase to get started), but these will only create a very basic interface; for anything more complicated, you will need a programmer and a bit more of an investment.

QR code

One other idea is to use QR codes, those square bar code-type things that have been showing up on everything from business cards to t-shirts lately. Most QR codes are free to create and will send the user (who takes a photo of the code and processes it with their smart phone) directly to your website, a phone number, a block of text, or a text (SMS) message. Many people still don’t know what they are or how to use them, but since they’re free and may help some people, they could be worth looking into. mobile

Next, Liz Keith talked about her experience in helping to build the LawHelp mobile website (now live). The site was constructed in partnership with Colorado Legal Services, the Northwest Justice Project, and Pro Bono Net on a 2010 Technology Initiative Grant (TIG) to Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA). It was developed in HTML5, rather than a platform-specific operating system (such as the iPhone’s iOS or an Android or Windows platform). Content can be added in two ways: either tagged from the main site, or constructed specifically for display on mobile devices. The site supports a location-specific interface, so that users can enter their zip code before entering the site and be directed to resources tailored to their area.

Keith says that the team learned a lot in developing the site. First, don’t reinvent the wheel: learn from those who have created mobile sites before you. Always allow extra time for development and testing, as usability tests can be invaluable to the development process. Have a specific mobile strategy: things like plain language and brevity keep mobile content manageable and not overwhelming to the user. Tailor the content you provide to topics that someone might need while on-the-go; no one is going to read an in-depth analysis or report, useful as it may be, on a 2.5-inch screen while they’re on the bus. Make buttons and links large, easy to read, and clear as to where they’re going. Additionally, Keith’s users appreciated an “email this” feature that allowed them to send links to relevant information to themselves or friends for perusal at a later date.

Following the discussion of mobile sites, the panelists tackled mobile apps. Keith mentioned the CitizenshipWorks app, which provides immigrants to the US with access to information about the naturalization process, calculators to determine aspects of their eligibility, a checklist of documents to include in their naturalization application, and flash cards on civics questions. The app will be available in both English and Spanish, in November for Android and December for iPhones. Keith reports that creating the app represented a pretty significant investment in terms of both money and time, but for a subject area in which users will be pretty committed, such as naturalization, it made sense.

iProBono app

Vince Morris then talked about the iPhone app, iProBono, which he had worked with a programmer to develop. The app was designed to connect attorneys with pro bono cases, simply extending what the main website was already doing. The app has a “Justice News” stream, a Help section, and sorts cases by substantive law and county. Each case lists information such as case number, type, date added, county, and a brief description. Once a case accepted, an email is sent to the case’s coordinator letting them know (after a 15-minute delay, so the attorney can retract their acceptance if needed), then stored the attorney’s “My Cases” section. As an added feature, attorneys can even record time on those cases within the app.

The cost of developing this app was very low; the only cost to Arkansas Legal Services Partnership was the iOS license at $99; the programmer’s hours (some 500+) were donated. Although the app has only resulted in 12 case placements so far, Morris reports that the real benefit was the excitement and publicity generated surrounding the app, which has brought a lot of attention to the technology and the organization itself.

Next, Laura Quinn moved on to another application of mobile phone technology: texting, or SMS messaging. Your organization has a few options in this field:

  1. Send individual messages (such as appointment reminders) via email (send to phonenumber@provider; i.e. for Verizon; see this page for provider codes).
  2. Broadcast messages (think Rock the Vote).
  3. Have people subscribe to a list or donate by texting a short code (remember after the earthquake in Japan, when everyone was texting REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10? That’s a short code).
  4. Set up a phone number people can simply text with questions; doing so can either enter them into an automated “tree” of responses, or garner a reply from an actual person (one nonprofit in Minnesota, Crisis Connection, set up a suicide hotline, TXT4LIFE, along these lines).
  5. Some organizations, such as those dealing with housing, ask people to text the organization when they have a specific problem (such as water), enabling the organization to make a map of where the problems are.

Some basic applications for broadcast texting, such as Mozes (with a special $10/month for 250 texts deal; make sure to ask about it) and mobilecause, are relatively cheap and will allow you to send a few hundred texts per month. For a more full-featured application, check out Mobile Commons, Mobile Accord, or Clickatell. You do not need a separate phone account to send texts if you use a service like those listed; they already have the relationship with the service provider.

Additionally, Brian Rowe of LSNTAP mentioned that Google Voice accounts are free and can receive and send text messages one at a time.

At this point, a member of the audience asked how texting could apply to legal services, since it seems that even a short legal answer would be too long for a text message. Rowe answered that plain language can go a long way to distilling answers down to a text-able size; more important, however, was to include short links in the response (links can be shortened with services like and Tiny URL). Keith also mentioned that using more sophisticated SMS platforms like those listed above can help quite a bit.

Another audience member asked if the cost of text messaging to clients should be a factor in legal services’ use of SMS. While it wouldn’t hurt to ask, consensus was that most users, especially young people, will be on unlimited texting plans, which are more economical than dealing with frequent overage rates.

Finally, Quinn discussed the idea of using mobile technology to collect data in the field. This can take the form of giving smart phones to attorneys, as Headway Emotional Health Services (HEHS) did for 50 case managers, allowing them to input data, manage their schedules, and send emails on the go. HEHS employees have reported a higher productivity level and reduced scheduling conflicts, with an initial investment of about $5000 for the phones and about $1200/month for the data plans.

Alternately, using mobile technology in the field could take the form of collecting information via surveys or forms on iPads or other tablets. People like to use tablets, which are easy for staff to carry around and, depending on the model, can be relatively cheap up-front.

The future prospects of mobile technology and its use in legal services are pretty exciting, but the present also provides some great opportunities for improved service and outreach. Getting involved doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming; many of the techniques discussed above are low-cost and can yield great results. Check out LSNTAP’s Tech Library for more information, and as always, feel free to leave your comments and questions below!

May the text be with you,

P.S. Check out the webinar recording on YouTube and the slides on SlideShare for more information.