by Xander Karsten and Jillian Theil

As part of our work with Pro Bono Net, we frequently attend conferences, which offer us the opportunity to connect with colleagues as well as learn and share trending topics, information and new tools.  This year’s Nonprofit Technology Conference

From L-R: Michael Smolens, Matthew Burnett, Xander Karsten, and Teri Ross at NTC 2013

(NTC) in Minneapolis, Minnesota was no different. But what sets NTC apart is that it draws non-profit professionals from a number of fields – not just the legal sector. Meeting and learning from medical service providers, parent advocate associations, and more, provides us with invaluable insights as to how other nonprofits approach common problems, such as how to increase access to much needed services.

One of the trending topics at NTC was the digital divide, and how we close the inequality gap that exists between those who have access to technology and those who do not. Today, nonprofits are relying more and more on technology to efficiently and effectively achieve their goals and deliver services.

The digital divide was the main focus of a presentation by Elizabeth Pope, senior researcher at Idealware in her session called, From Digital Divide to Digital Inclusion: Technology as an Equalizing Force. In this session, strategies for closing the divide were discussed, such as identifying barriers to technology access (mobility barriers, language barriers, economic barriers, etc). Two organizations that have made progress on increasing technology access – the Pacer Center and the Skokie Public Library– were discussed as exemplary organizations working on how to create effective resources for clients who have a limited understanding of technology. At Pro Bono Net, this is a particularly important issue for us as we develop technology tools to increase access to justice, such as our LawHelp  and LawHelp Interactive platforms. Additionally, it is helpful in thinking through our partnerships with public libraries, important partners in closing justice and technology gaps.

Consequently, access to content via mobile was also a focus of discussions around the digital divide. With a growing number of low income and young users accessing websites and direct services organizations on mobile devices, this is yet another key topic for nonprofits. At Pro Bono Net, developing mobile optimized versions of our LawHelp site is a key priority in enabling access to legal services to a broader demographic, and offers a mobile app that helps immigrants understand the naturalization process. SMS and Derek Olson, Vice President of Foraker Labs and Michele Zwiebel, Director of Programs and Content at provided exceptional insights into the process of translating a full site into a mobile accessible site in their presentation Designing a Mobile User Experience for Breast Cancer Survivors. Even though the mobile site is health oriented, there were many takeaways for non-health organizations, such as how to mobile optimize a content-heavy site and the importance of observing your audience’s needs when designing for mobile. The panel also reflected the growing sentiment that designing for mobile users should be a primary consideration in all platform development, allowing for maximum accessibility across all devices.

Echoing the mantra of accessibility, mobile platforms and multilingual content were also examined in a panel moderated by Pro Bono Net’s Xander Karsten, Breaking through Language Barriers with Technology with panelists Teri Ross, Program Director of Ayuda Legal Illinois; Michael Smolens, Founder of DotSub and Board Member of Translators without Borders; and Matthew Burnett, Director of Immigration Advocates Network. This breakout session highlighted the work and strategies of each organization in making their online presence meaningful to those with limited English proficiency, such as addressing how to translate a site that offers a large amount of content, how to approach translation projects in communities where multiple languages are spoken, translation of multimedia resources and much more. Interestingly, the session was particularly unique in that it was the only conference panel to directly focus on language access rights, something that we work towards at Pro Bono Net by offering the ability to translate our LawHelp sites into multiple languages.

In much of our day–to-day work we are often confronted with figuring out how to  provide meaningful access to those who face incredible barriers when trying to access resources and information. Within our own communities we talk about language access, mobile access, literacy access, economic access, physical access and more. Utilizing the principle of accessibility when designing sites and services can change the life of a disadvantaged individual facing legal challenges.  NTC is a great opportunity to look at these issues from outside the legal services perspective, see these common access issues in a different light, and bring back new and innovative solutions to the legal technology community.