Hacking Outside the Box

I think it was Arnold Palmer who remarked that beginners often find golf easy because they haven’t had time to learn how hard it is. That’s essentially the sentiment that drives the “Hackathon” mentality. At e-Courts 2016 last month, the Court Hackathon sessions were among the most interesting and the most eye-opening.


I didn’t know, going in, what a “Hackathon” is. I assumed it was a bunch of real-life Big Bang Theory young techies trying to break court enterprise systems.

It turns out I was half right. It does involve a bunch of BBT young techies. However, rather than breaking things, they are building them. Hackathoners enter a convention hall-size room filled with tables, chairs, computers, and various forms of highly caffeinated beverages and high caloric-content junk food. They are tasked with conceiving, designing, and creating a working, useful application. They have something like thirty-six hours in which to do it. They form teams and have at it. At the end, they show what they’ve built.

The really exciting part is that these folks, being not only young, but also largely unencumbered by any idea of the internal operations of the justice system in general or the courts in particular, are literally unaware that certain things JUST CAN’T BE DONE.

At one session, the Grand Prize winners presented their winning solution (their presentation, along with the others from the conference, is available online).

In many ways, the actual solution took a back seat to the attitude, approach, and world view of the “Hackathoners”. These young people view courts and the justice system from the perspective of people who have never, since the time they were slapped with GPS bracelets in the hospital before they were all the way born, known a world without the Internet, Google, Amazon, smartphones, and so on. When they have a question, they expect to be able to ask in normal language and to instantly get a straightforward, relevant response.

When describing how the team determined what “problem” to solve, they told a very non-flattering (to the justice agency) story of trying to report a theft. The online interface consisted of a half-dozen or more text-packed screens requesting myriad information, almost none of which seemed (to the victim) to be even slightly relevant to his attempt to report the crime. (The victim’s date of birth? His employer? Really?)

Now, from an internal agency standpoint, the question would be, “Well, what’s wrong with that? We’re on the cutting edge – we’re actually using Form-Driven E-Filing. Not only that, the citizen (to whom we have outsourced our data entry) can access it online. You mean you’re not thanking us for this?

The team decided to attempt to develop a more friendly experience for the user. They selected a court application: responding to an eviction (FED) notice. To see how it works, watch the presentation, which includes a demo.

Here’s what I think is particularly important: The key to the solution is what is known as Natural Language Processing (NLP). You know it as Siri, Cortina, Alexa, Echo, and so on. As the team pointed out, only now is the processing power becoming available to make NLP a part of practical solutions.

So here’s the punch line insofar as it relates to ECM and E-Filing. Remember the Six Building Blocks of ECM?  (Feel free to go back and review… ) Well, Number One is Capture. And Capture is starting to move to interactive, NPL interfaces: the next evolution beyond form-driven data capture.

The data so captured from natural conversations will feed into the Workflow engine. And the results will in turn be consumed by, among other things, the NLP itself as it hones its ability to effectively interact with users, making sense of what it hears and giving appropriate and meaningful responses.

Really, really exciting stuff. At least to a geek like me. The Hackathoners, not knowing any better, gave us a glimpse of where we’re all headed. Seemed to them to be the right thing to do.


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