To Wade In Or Jump?

“Big Bang” Or “Staged” Change and the “Open” Versus “Closed” Technology Ecosystem

Everyone who has ever approached a cool lake, stream, surf, or pool knows the conundrum: Enter the water slowly to get acclimated; or take the plunge and endure the shock. Is there a “correct” answer? Maybe; but the truth is, there are disadvantages to each.

123_Digital-Ecosystem

Courts face the same dilemma when it comes to embarking on change, which often includes the prospect of immersion in some new technology. As the desired end-result is to be “in the water” no matter the technique used to get wet, the decision may be reduced to a basic tactical question, “What’s the best way to get the new technology in place?”.

I confess that I may have taken that position on occasion. Yet a strong argument can be made that the decision on how to get there is more strategic than tactical. Consider this statement from a recent Forbes article:

Smart organizations learn quickly enough that if they place efficiency above a smooth organizational transformation, they may find their automation efforts fail to improve their companies’ performance.

My take on this observation is that in this era of constant disruption, the ability of an organization to handle change (including introduction of new technology) constitutes a strategic imperative; not just a tactical choice.


Download a white paper on the business case for a paper-on-demand court.

Given that many courts have a finite capacity to absorb change without breaking some really important things, the “Big Bang” approach may have the dual unfortunate consequences of failing to achieve the objective and unintentionally degrading (or missing an opportunity to improve) the court’s capacity to constructively embrace change.

Moreover, in some ways, these considerations permeate the current discussions in court technology circles regarding the relative advantages of “Open” versus “Closed” technology ecosystems.

At e-Courts 2016, in the session Good Public Policy for Innovation: Open vs. Closed Eco-System , California Court of Appeals Justice Terry Bruniers, Orange County Superior Court CEO Alan Carlson, and Santa Clara County Superior Court CIA  Robert Oyung discussed the plusses and minuses of each approach.

The “traditional”, which is to say, legacy, approach using a “Closed” ecosystem was, to a great degree, forced upon courts in the early days of court case and records management technology. Through the ’70’s, ’80’s, and ’90’s, there was little in the way of standards, the consequence of which was that a system developed for one court could rarely be ported to other courts. The overall large court and state court market was, in a business sense, not large enough to attract big players to develop systems that could be built once and resold (usually after expensive rewriting and customization) many times.

The panelists identified a number of advantages of the “Closed” model, based on their experiences: Ease of management, level of control, easier (and more local) governance, and the ability to “have it my way”. And, since many if not most larger courts and systems “grew up” with the “Closed” model, they are at least culturally used to it.

Nevertheless, the panel unanimously concluded that, on the whole, the “Open” ecosystem model today provides considerably greater advantages. Today’s technical landscape, in contrast to the relatively monolithic and sparsely populated landscape of decades past, provides courts with much greater choice and flexibility across CMS, DMS, e-filing, workflow, judicial workbench, cross-system integration, etc.

Panelists felt that “Open” ecosystems offer increased nimbleness and agility to deal with the rapidly changing environment in which courts must operate and plan today. They spoke of the increased power through availability of “Best of Breed” solutions.

And, in line with the strategic nature of the organization’s ability to adapt to and embrace change, they spoke of the advantages offered by partnering with vendors. One observation was that vendors in many ways are more public-facing, and may know and understand the court’s customers in ways that the court itself does not.

Whatever the choice – staged versus “Big Bang”; “Closed” ecosystem versus “Open” ecosystem – courts should base their decisions on more than what, in the moment, feels like the best tactical reason. The changes involve the body, heart, and soul of the court – so the decisions should be strategically aligned with the court’s longer term considerations.

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.

121_hacking

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.

 

e-Courts 2016 Quick Review

e-Courts 2016 is “in the books”, as they say. My understanding is that video of the sessions is or will soon be available online. Check the e-Courts 2016 website for information. I strongly suggest viewing those sessions in which you have an interest when they become available.

120_conferenceStarting with Gary Marchant’s Keynote, attendees confronted the evidence that technological changes in society at large have started to overwhelm the justice system; and courts, by and large, are not prepared for it. From body camera data to genetic data to virtual reality evidence, Marchant described how new technologies are overwhelming the ability of governing institutions – including the Justice System – to cope within existing customs, laws, ethical guidelines, rules, processes, and economic models. While much of government may simply refuse to act – pass laws, promulgate regulations, etc. – courts have no choice. They are confronted with the dilemmas created; but have little to no relevant guidance from either the statutory/regulatory framework or prior experience.

Moreover, the shear size of the quantity, and variety of incoming data has begun to overwhelm the infrastructure. For example, how to handle the exploding increase in body-camera data? Not only is the amount huge; but the formats are not standardized; the courts do not have the capability to display all formats, and efforts to convert to “standard” formats constitute alteration of evidence. The need for the technology to manage the technology is manifest.

Meanwhile, as Tom Clarke, Vice President of Research & Technology, pointed out, surveys starkly reveal that the public regards the courts as extremely out of step with what are considered the minimal standards of technological competence for today’s world. In what was possibly the most memorable line of the conference, Clarke described the public’s attitude toward court technological prowess as “Bringing the public yesterday’s technology tomorrow”.

Pretty rough stuff. Still, I thought e-Courts 2016 was far and away the most HOPEFUL court technology conference I’ve ever attended. What to me was most striking was not the fact that speakers were talking about the judicial system being left in the dust. It was that most people were staying to hear it, and ask “So, where do we go from here?”

The very first session, Embracing the Accelerating Pace of Technology Change, observed that courts have moved from a place where a very few are willing to embrace newer technologies to the place where very few are still actively resisting. The session provide insights on how court managers and technologists can affirmatively advance their courts’ ability and willingness to adopt a culture that thrives on constant change.

The Courthack sessions were extremely well received – something I question would have been the case five or ten years ago. Very bright, very energetic youngsters come together to conceive of, design, and build “outside the box” (potentially disruptive of current practices and procedures) applications intended to improve the court customer experience and court product quality.

The JTC – Improving the Administration of Justice Through Technology session laid out the current major initiatives of the Joint Technology Committee – a collaborative effort of COSCA, NACM, and NCSC – to provide practical assistance for dealing with technology change . These include technology standards development, process improvement, technology training for court leaders, and dialog within and among the justice community on technology matters.

Courts disrupted (which Tom Clarke hastened to point out was way too big a topic for a single session) identified some major disconnects in the way courts may perceive their business and what their business really is. For example, the actual mix of case types varies dramatically from what courts are designed to handle. Just one example: cases involving lawyers constitute a small fraction of the total case load.

Fittingly, Good Public Policy for Innovation: Open vs. Closed Ecosystem concluded the conference. I will have more to say on this topic later. The very practical question, in facing the upheavals and the technology choices, is whether to integrate “Best of Breed” components on the one hand (“Open” ecosystem); or to build or acquire a single system that does everything (“Closed” ecosystem). The panelists did a very nice job of identifying the issues involved, the relative advantages and disadvantages.

Again, I strongly encourage you to check the e-Courts website and view some, or all the sessions. And I look forward to future conferences, white papers, and educational opportunities that build on the material presented at this conference to provide practical assistance to court leaders in the facing today’s profound changes.

 

Change and Continuity

119_change

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Given the eclectic mix of disciplines and emphases involved, including  STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), sociology, history, psychology, ergonomics, and art, to name a few, architects quite naturally have an almost unique perspective on the subject of Change and Continuity. And that perspective turns out to be highly relevant to the theme of this December’s e-Courts 2016 Conference; namely, how courts can deal with the accelerating rate of change for which technology is a major causal factor.

Recently, I had the opportunity at a party to chat with a young graduate student studying to become an architect. My young friend has no formal legal training; but does have a solid undergraduate background in architecture, in addition to his current graduate studies. I mentioned a piece I wrote a couple years ago  about the interest of architects in how to design for the courthouses of the future.

As it happens, my young friend himself has an interest in and has done some work regarding the architecture of courthouses. He shared with me that he had recently authored a paper in which he presented a pretty harsh critique of one of the relatively new (within the past ten years) courthouses nearby. I asked him, in layman’s terms, what he saw as the problem.  His response, I believe, highlights an important principle that those of us involved with court technology should – but do not always – keep clearly in mind.

The shortcomings, he said, were not at all functional. As an office building, the courthouse was fine. The problem, he said, was that it was really just that: An office building. It could have housed any office-centric business. To an observer who had no idea what the building was, there was nothing to indicate, internally or externally in its architecture, that it was a courthouse.

That comment surprised me more than a little bit. Not because I disagreed with it (I know that courthouse); but because he, as an architect, thought it important.

I generally have to “tone down” my evangelical impulses to try to explain what I see as the fundamental power of the concept of an independent, robust judicial system. When I can’t contain those impulses, I at best bore, and more often probably irritate people by pointing out that there are really, really good reasons why judges typically sit higher than everyone else; why everyone rises when the judge enters; why only those “admitted” or with permission may “pass the bar”, and so on. But I went through the Law School Indoctrination; I don’t usually encounter non-lawyers or non-court folks who really give those things much thought.

Well, it turns out architects (at least some of them, including my friend) understand that the design and architecture of a courthouse has an importance beyond basic functionality. There is an importance in having people feel, however subliminally, that the courthouse is an institution of justice, solemnity, fairness, and truth, critical to the well-being of a free society.

I hope we folks who bring and work with technology in the courts make it a point to keep these values in mind. I think of the number of times that I have dealt with, discussed, or done business with technology providers who, however experienced in their own domains, have little or no experience in working with courts. At first, THEY JUST DON’T GET IT. But there it is: Courts ARE different.

As I participate in “Futures” discussions and planning, I find one exercise particularly worthwhile in this regard. Futures planning naturally attempts to predict what will change. But it helps to also identify what WILL NOT change. In the future there may be hover cars and controllable weather; but couples will still meet, fall in love, and try to live happily ever after. Teenagers may communicate with their friends through electronic tattoos; but they’ll still be terminally embarrassed by their parents.

All information may some day be digital; all communication may be wireless and instantaneous. But there will still be need for a strong judicial system; and the technology we bring must support that institution.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Countdown to e-Courts 2016

I’m looking forward to e-Courts 2016 in a couple of weeks; and not just because it’s in Las Vegas and likely to be sunnier and warmer than the December cold and gray at home. e-Courts and CTC conferences stand well on their own in that they are rich in information, networking and exposure to the latest technological innovations. The e-Courts experience, being court-centric, “lessons learned” as well as future planning makes it all that more relevant.

Beyond all that, for those of us fortunate enough to have attended a number of these conferences over the years, the cumulative “arc”, if you will, of the conferences provides an interesting view of where court technology has been and where it is headed. Each conference has its own special vibe or theme (sometimes more than one); and while there are definite similarities from conference to conference, the differences reflect the advances in the technology and their effects on courts.

118_e-courtsA glance at this year’s agenda provides immediate insight into this year’s theme. All past conferences, of course, have dealt with changing technology. This year, from Gary Marchant’s Keynote Address  through sessions with titles like Embracing the Accelerating Pace of Technology Change and Courts Disrupted, the pattern seems to be identifying and describing not only the technologies, but also discussing how courts can deal with the accelerating rate of change for which technology is a major causal factor. Because, while each new technology in of itself engenders change, the cumulative effect of the myriad of technological, societal, environmental, medical, pedagogical and other tsunami-like changes are altering the very face of the justice system.

One area I hope gets some discussion at and following the conference (while not necessarily under this label) is Complexity Theory. (Several years ago, I wrote a piece for this blog on Complexity Theory, also known as Chaos Theory. The editors mercifully elected not to publish it.) The particular point I made in that piece that should be considered is determining whether, in a very dynamic (that is, rapidly changing) environment, organizations can maneuver more effectively with one large, tightly integrated system, or with multiple smaller, integrated but interchangeable systems. In a broad sense, the answer, of course, is “It Depends.”

I hope there is some discussion of what it depends upon. For one thing, it depends on where the court is coming from. If the court has a tightly integrated system that handles CMS, DMS, work flow, judge’s work bench, public access, web portal, and so on, no doubt there will be real advantages with staying with that model. If, on the other hand, each (or at least many) different functions are handled by separate systems, the answer may be very different. In cases where there is NO current system for certain functions, like Content Management, Workflow, Judges’ Workbench, it’s a serious question whether to try to expand an existing system like a CMS or go with a Best of Breed system that can be elegantly integrated with the existing systems.

The Complexity, or Chaos Theory reference pertains to a characteristic with which we are all familiar but rarely articulate, and for which there is some truly incomprehensible math. Since I am not real sharp with math, here’s an example: If you want to pave an area, are you better off paving it as one section, or as a bunch of smaller sections fitted together (like squares in a sidewalk)? Or, should you have one large single-pane window, or a set of smaller window panes that together form a large viewing area?

While the single area may be easier overall to put in, there are a couple drawbacks. One is that you must be able to do it all at once. Another is that one crack, anywhere, destroys the integrity of the whole thing. Thus, when there is the prospect of variability (like heat changes winter to summer) or instability (like ground tremors) that can damage the window, builders go with the smaller, sectioned design.

I think there’s a real analogy here to the situation courts find themselves in as the gale winds of change blow over them. The Pyramids could withstand a lot of weather. But even they were made of individual building blocks. Yes, we’re all finding new functions we want to migrate onto electronic platforms. everyone should carefully consider not just what works best; but what model will best withstand the certainty of future uncertainty.