Building from the Ground Up

By Jeffrey N. Barlow

I am currently reading the biography of Steve Jobs. Without drawing too close an analogy, Jobs’s intense focus on the “user experience,” and how to make it “insanely great” should resonate with the Justice community as it seeks tools to automate the planning, delivery, and archiving of services. The story of the iPod provides an excellent illustration of the point.128_ipod evolution

Generally, the thinking, both inside and outside the company, was that Apple was a technology company that, among other things, marketed technical devices. And, of course, it was. Pre-iPod, many technology companies made devices for people to use to listen to music.

Other companies produced music, which was distributed on various media. There probably never was a plot to change the media just as my record/tape/CD collection started filling out; but it sure seemed like it.

Some companies, like Sony, actually produced both the content and the devices. But, while it may have seemed like that created an “integrated experience,” that turned out not to be the case at all. (And therein lies its own cautionary tale: the fact that the system components have the same label does not necessarily guarantee particularly elegant integration at the functional level.) At Sony, there was the technical (hardware) side, and the recording (artists) side. As it turned out, the twain was rarely meeting.

Steve Jobs loved to listen to music. Being who he was, he figured out what that meant. And it meant a lot more than putting a record on a turntable, or a cassette in a tape deck, or a CD in a player.

As I read about this adventure, having lived through the previous eras of music consumption, I find myself struck by the fact that I have seen this story unfold in another realm; indeed the realm with which this blog deals: Justice System Information and Records Management. In this regard, the modern, integrated  judicial automated tool sets provide an excellent illustration.


 Read more about an integrated judicial tool for the bench.

In no way should these observations be construed as a criticism of those (of whom I am one) who developed court and justice community information management systems. The fact is, the seminal court information systems were developed by technologists for strictly back-room use by data entry clerks using the tools available at the time. Elegance was, to say the least, not a consideration. Nor was much in the way of integration, except for the passing of large, cumulative reports.

As you will be hearing in this space from Brad Smith, Senior Justice Systems Consultant for ImageSoft, the new systems are largely driven from the top down by judges; not from the bottom up by technologists. As a result, today judges (as well as all the staff and business partners) have available to them tools that can seamlessly and elegantly bring together the many information streams and process enabling technologies required to provide an outstanding “user experience.”

Not surprisingly, the key change moment was when judges themselves took control of the design process. (I recommend taking a look at Judge Lee E. Haworth’s video on the development of the Manatee County, Florida judicial bench application.) As with the Apple experience, when people whose business is providing justice services are at the forefront of the design of systems to provide justice services, those systems turn out to be a lot more than just technology. They actually turn out to be cool.

For better or for worse, the justice system constitutes a relatively small market compared to, say, defense or accounting or agriculture. Partially for that reason, a lot of justice system IT had its origins in other, completely different business domains. As the Apple experience shows, those who take the time to work from the ground up with the people and institutions intimately involved in the target enterprise, in this case, justice, are capable of providing tighter, more elegant, and more powerful systems in the end.

Which court system do you think could benefit from a ground-up redesign?