The only thing that pisses me off more than getting ripped off is when it happens to a really good friend, and nothing can be done about it.
New Jersey-based app developer Nikhil Jhunjhnuwala felt the same. So in the second year of law school, he dropped out to work instead on developing technology that helps guide people through legal decisions.
He tells the story of a young girl named Julia that he mentors in Los Angeles whose family recently got ripped off while planning her own quinceañera party.
“The venue was just a complete mess," Jhunjhnuwala recalls. "It was understaffed, so she and her family had to do a lot of the work they thought they already paid for. The band left really early, and it was just so stressful that it wasn’t the special day that it was supposed to be.”
When Julia told him of the incident, the seed of an idea for a tech-based solution sprouted in his brain. What if a family like hers — a Spanish-speaking, working-class family unlikely to go to small claims court — could protect itself better beforehand? Jhunjhnuwala envisioned an app offering the tools they would need in order to make sure that the terms of an agreement were laid out, and there could be no weaseling out of it.
Besides, even if a claim like Julia's family’s was taken to court, a cash transaction based on a verbal agreement could easily devolve into a he says/she says spat. And the damage would already be done, regardless of any money recouped afterwards.
So Jhunjhnuwala jumped at the change to flesh out his new app idea this past weekend at the national conference for LATISM (Latinos in Social Media). Organizers hosted what they billed as “El Hackathon," an event in which teams were tasked with developing apps that could help the Latino community in particular. In total, seven teams competed over a 24-hour period in hopes of winning a $5000 top prize from LATISM for their app.
Jhunjhnuwala assembled a group of five, including developers, lawyers, designers, and translators. The end result was a mobile app called Legitimo, designed to prevent situations like Julia’s from ever happening again.
Legitimo enables users to generate a basic contract in either Spanish or English so both sides understand exactly the terms to which they're agreeing. The template-based contracts can be generated in under a minute for a variety of needs - purchasing or providing a service, taking or making a personal loan, or lending a car to a friend, to name a few.
A contract can then be instantaneously translated (if needed) and sent to recipients to be signed right on the mobile device, or via e-mail. It's also archived, so signees can refer back to it in case of a dispute. “It’s almost as a preventative measure so no one can screw each other over,” Jhunjhnuwala says.
Spanish-speaking communities regularly engage in informal (not illegal) economies that are largely cash-based, making it harder to take legal action should something go wrong. Since a recent Pew Hispanic Report shows that Latinos are more likely to own smart phones than whites, Legitimo sees mobile as the easiest way to help legitimize some of these transactions.
Legitimo may not automatically generate the perfectly handcrafted contract favored by courts. But Jhunjhnuwala argues that it should provide enough of the “meeting of the minds” principle of contract law that it will both stand up in court, and act as a deterrent for someone looking for a quick come-up at someone else’s expense.
After winning the top prize at LATISM's El Hackathon, Jhunjhnuwala tweeted that he messaged Julia about Legitimo, and that “she can’t wait for the app to come out.” That should be happening soon. Follow him on Twitter at @irnikij for updates.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.