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May 03 2011

17:00

Reality TV: OpenCourt has begun its livestream of the judicial system

OpenCourt is about as real as reality TV can get when it doesn’t involve Kardashians, real housewives, or people trapped on an island. That’s because OpenCourt, which launched yesterday, offers a view inside the legal system — specifically, the Quincy District Court here in Massachusetts, where traffic infractions, drug cases, and arraignments of all kinds now unfold not only in the courtroom, but also via streaming video.

The streaming is the next step in what was formerly known as Order in the Court 2.0, the winner of a 2010 Knight News Challenge grant and a project with an explicit goal of making the courts as transparent as the other branches of government. It’s something that seems simple as a premise: Put a webcam in a courtroom, and, boom, livestreamed court proceedings. But of course it’s tricker than that; otherwise, the Knight Foundation may not have awarded $250,000 to the WBUR-led project.

“The truth of the matter is when we put this out there the concept is so simple,” John Davidow, OpenCourt’s executive producer, told me. “We’re just going to stream live what takes place in public.”

A test run for transparency

The tasks OpenCourt is addressing are technical as much as they are legal, and sometimes conventional. The project operates within the boundaries of camera-use in the courts (video recording is permitted here in Massachusetts but can be limited by judges — though the current law may be broadened). But it still must confront concerns from the legal community, and ultimately try to balance the idea of transparency with the right to a fair trial.

But since there is no universal standard for new media access when it comes to the legal system in the US, OpenCourt is also a test case. Walking into any random courtroom, there’s no way of knowing whether tweeting is allowed, whether recording is an option, or even whether the use of a laptop is acceptable. That’s why Davidow says OpenCourt is an experiment, and one that will need to be watched closely if it’s to be duplicated elsewhere.

“It’s a pilot,” Davidow told me. “It’s now a reality and off the white board. More and more issues will come forward.”

And already something has come forward. On its first day of operation, the Norfolk County District Attorney’s office filed a a motion to close access to OpenCourt’s archives. An attorney from the DA’s office said the archives would present a lasting, un-editable record if inappropriate or inaccurate information — the names of crime victims, say, or of confidential informants — were to come out in a hearing. Judge Mark Coven denied the motion, saying “respectfully, I can’t address hypotheticals.”

Defining an open system

The true hurdles for OpenCourt, as Davidow described them, come in defining the parameters of how, what, and when the video feed would be active. He and his staffJoe Spurr, OpenCourt’s director, and Val Wang, its producer — decided the video stream would be live only when a judge is presiding over a case and when an OpenCourt producer is present. (In other words, this won’t be the equivalent of a traffic cam staring at the bench.) Davidow said they decided that the judge (who has a laptop monitoring the feed) will have discretion over whether the video is online or not. And that will largely depend on the case, Davidow said. (Though, after consulting with their advisory group of lawyers, judges, academics, and others, the team decided not to broadcast restraining order hearings as a rule.) The team had to be mindful, Davidow noted, of how being transparent could cause additional harm to people or prevent them from appearing in court at all.

But rather than setting out more guidelines for limiting the use of live video, the OpenCourt team has tried to find ways to make the camera and what it represents less of an issue. Beginning late last year, they held a series of meetings with the community in and around the court to familiarize others with the project, the gear, and the people who would be filming hearings every day. The camera, and the producer who operates it, have their own pocket in the courtroom and have become something of a fixture. (On the stream, you might notice, not many folks look towards the camera.)

“When you put a TV camera some place, people eventually forget about it,” Davidow said. “There’s a comfort level with it; you get used to it. That has helped the project immensely.”

Watching OpenCourt is C-SPAN-esque — or maybe Court TV-esque (or is that now truTV-esque?) — minus the call-in shows and podium-thumping speeches from politicians. Defendants shuffle in and out, charges are explained, and things follow course from there. It’s an unfiltered eye into the legal process, like staring down at an engine as it’s working.

It’s also more than a little ironic: Courts are open, but are they open open? “Courts have enjoyed what they referred to as ‘virtual obscurity,’” Davidow said. “Yes, justice is done in public, but to see it you need to go to court.”

A judicial education

Watching the video feed also makes you appreciate the simplicity of the kit OpenCourt has put together to create such a seamless product. As the team explains on their “Open Your Court” page, a DIY run-through for filming your local legal system, they use a couple of MacBook Pros, a Canon HD camcorder, and Livestream to get things up and running. One of the project’s goals, said Spurr, is to offer other courts full guidance on using cameras in court — and that guidance includes technology details and other best practices. “It’s about iterability,” Spurr said, “and being able to create an ideal environment that is forward thinking: What could a courtroom look like?”

What OpenCourt is encouraging is more interaction with, if not more information about, the court system. Aside from the livestream, the project is also providing free WiFi at the courthouse for anyone who wants to come in to cover a case. In that, Davidow said, the project could be a boon to local bloggers and citizen journalists, giving them an additional resource for covering the community. It’s also clear that OpenCourt could be useful to understaffed newsrooms as a way of keeping track of cases as they move through the system. “I’d argue that nothing compares to actually being there and seeing with your own eyes,” he said. “At the same time, maybe some news organizations would find efficiency in that setup.” (The Quincy Patriot-Ledger has already embedded the OpenCourt stream in a story.)

While the goal is to throw open the doors of the court, it is also to educate the public about the court’s workings. Though one of the benefits of operating in a district court is that it’s the most accessible step in the judiciary (traffic/moving violations, fines, the types of misdemeanors you don’t want others to know about — all go through district court), there’s still an element of the unknown about how courts work. This is why, in addition to the stream on opencourt.us, you’ll also find a schedule of the day’s cases, a glossary of legal terms, and a rundown of the people who make the court work.

“One of the reasons the courts really embraced this idea is because people don’t understand some basic concepts,” Davidow said. “The courts felt this was a way for people to start learning about how justice is done in this country.”

March 10 2011

14:00

Why We Won't Live-Stream Restraining Order Hearings

One of the first questions people ask when I tell them about our project, Order in the Court 2.0, to live-stream court proceedings is, "Is there a way to turn the camera off?" They must imagine a camera bolted to the wall, gobbling up images of domestic violence victims and child sex offenders with no regard to how it affects justice being served.

But I have the opposite fear too -- that the judges in those courtrooms will become so skittish that they'll keep turning the camera off and we'll lose the ideal of openness that is the purpose of our project and a cornerstone of that little thing we call democracy.

So this question of when to keep the camera on and when to turn it off is a complicated one that involves balancing transparency with privacy. It has provoked more controversy than any other question that we've posed.

Knowing that we had a range of viewpoints from "show everything" to "protect the privacy of victims," we asked the Cyberlaw Clinic out of Harvard Law School to put together a preliminary checklist of reasons that the camera could potentially be turned off and took the list to meetings with both local and high-level stakeholders to get their input.

We want to work towards a list of loose guidelines that could guide the judges and clerks, while causing the least amount of interference with the court's business.

First, a little bit about our setup. There will always be a producer present when the camera is on, but it will be the judge and the clerk who actually turn it on and off.

Down in Quincy

We met with the local group in Quincy District Court first. We first ruled out certain proceedings from live-streaming: any cases involving minors or the victims of sexual abuse or assault; and any part of the voir dire or jury empanelment hearings. We also won't be showing the faces of jurors.

Participants brought up the statues that protect the privacy of criminal records and mental health records and we debated how to deal with those cases.

Then came the cases that are up to the judge's discretion. First Justice Mark Coven reiterated that all proceedings were free to be live-streamed but that he would be willing to consider turning off the camera on a case-by-case basis. If a lawyer or advocate has good reason to object to a proceeding being filmed, he or she may file a motion. Judge Coven has said he doesn't want to scare women off from applying for a restraining order.

People at the meeting brought up cases that they could imagine objecting to. These cases tended to fall into three major categories: the protection of victims, of witnesses and of defendants. For example:

  • A woman filing for a restraining order who won't go forward with it if she has to appear before the camera.
  • A spouse or parent committing a family member for substance abuse who doesn't want the community to know about their family problem.
  • An inflammatory sexual assault allegation that the defense has reason to believe is fabricated.
  • An identification case.

The defense lawyers and the representative of DOVE, the domestic violence advocacy group, were satisfied with the result, saying that we can't fully know how people will react to the camera until the project really begins.

Meanwhile, back up in Boston

When we put the same issues before our advisory board, they came up with the opposite answer to the question about restraining order hearings.

We recruited for our advisory board the same constellation of diverse viewpoints as we did with the local group, with the idea that they could offer us a kaleidoscopic view of the court. When we debated whether or not to show the restraining orders, we saw their full range of opinions.

We presented one of the arguments for showing the restraining order proceedings that had come out of our local meetings: the idea that a domestic violence victim watching at home might see the process and understand that she (or he) could come down to the court to apply for one themselves.

The representative of the Massachusetts Bar Association disagreed with this, saying that there are better ways to educate the public and that showing the proceedings could both expose the victim to more physical danger and public humiliation as well as permanently damage the reputation of those who have restraining orders filed against them that are eventually denied.

The head of the D.A.'s Victim Witness Services department concurred, saying that this project "can't afford a body."

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Justice Robert Cordy also agreed, saying that family issues are too sensitive and too fraught with peril to live-stream, at least at the beginning stages of our project.

The only objection came from a Boston University law professor and former ACLU counsel who said that if reporters are allowed into the courtroom, then our cameras should be too. (He also made the disclaimer that as an academic he doesn't really have a dog in the race.)

Justice Cordy said that in theory that's how we would like to operate but in reality there are perils of opening the court through technology. He said he didn't want this issue to trip up the project right at the beginning and that we should revisit the issue later.

These comments drove home to us the seriousness of our project and the impact it might have on people's lives. We want to proceed carefully.

Back in Quincy, Judge Coven disagreed with the advisory board's decision, saying that he believed live-streaming the proceedings would show what a big problem domestic violence is in Quincy, but that he would abide by the decision. He plans to move sensitive cases to other courtrooms rather than turning on and off the camera.

With all of this input, we'll be finalizing the checklist of guidelines soon.

December 10 2010

16:22

Massachusetts to Allow Live Twittering, Blogging in Courts

A big step forward took place this week for Order in the Court 2.0. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court announced a major proposal to change the state's "Cameras in the Courtroom statute", SJC Rule 1:19. Everything you'd want to know about the change is reflected in the name of the new rule. It's now called "Electronic Access to the Courts."

The current "cameras in the courtroom" statute applied to what are now considered mainstream media. Media with prior notification to the court were allowed to record audio, video and still images from the courts. The statute allows for one still camera and one videotape camera in a set position in the courtroom. Members of the media pool the material gathered in court and distribute it amongst themselves based upon mutually agreed upon rules. The court is not involved in the distribution of this material.

The proposed rule takes into consideration the new technological and journalistic realities that currently exist. The rule also expands the definition of media. In addition to mainstream news sources, the new rule allows "organizations that regularly gather, prepare, photograph, record, write, edit, report or publish news or information about matters of public interest for dissemination to the public, and to journalists who regularly perform a similar function."

In other words, web news editors, reporters and bloggers would have the same privileges as traditional media outlets. In addition to electronic recording devices like still and video cameras, journalists will be able to use their laptops and smartphones to cover the state's courts. The journalists will be allowed to transmit text, audio and video through these devices allowing them to provide live coverage of the courts.

All members of the media, large and small, would be required to register with the state's chief public information officer. The registration requires that the member of the media comply with the rules outlined in the new statute and that they regularly report news in some form. The statute is intentionally broad in its definition of what constitutes a member of the media and allows the state court's public information officer to make the final determination.

h2. The Making of Rule 1:19

Generally speaking, the writing of new laws is often compared to the sausage making process. As a member of the subcommittee for the state's Supreme Judicial Court Judicial-Media Committee that wrote the amendment to the rule, I can tell you this wasn't the case.

In addition to me, the subcommittee was made up of representatives from Boston's two major dailies, the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald, as well as representatives from the Associated Press, WCVB-TV and Lawyer's Weekly. Representing the state's non-mainstream media was Adam Gaffin, the editor of Universal Hub, one of the city's most prolific and respected news blogs. Also on the subcommittee were state judges, clerks and lawyers representing courts across the Commonwealth.

Here are the three main topics of the discussion over the roughly six months that it took to come up with the proposed rule change.

1. Electronic Equipment
The conversation on this topic focused on the kind of equipment that would be permitted in court. It was quickly agreed that whatever technology that was introduced inside, the courtroom would maintain the decorum necessary for the judicial process to take place. That means turning off the ringers on mobile phones. Laptops are be permitted as long as the sound of a clacking keyboard is not disruptive. Also, an additional camera position will be provided for non-mainstream media so that these journalists can be afforded the same electronic access as their mainstream counterparts. The use of smartphones will be permitted for texting and photographing the activity going on in court.

2. Who is a Journalist?
This discussion was very involved and thoughtful. It was gratifying to see how important it was for all members of the committee to broaden the definition of who would be permitted to cover the courts. In my opinion, members of the court have an unfair reputation for limiting access to court proceedings. The primary concern of the court is that the public's right to be informed does not interfere with the public's right to a fair trial. All the representatives from the court on the committee felt very strongly that what goes on in court is made as public as possible.

Over the course of many conversations, it was determined that a member of the media would have to establish that they regularly cover the courts or cover news associated with court proceedings. The greatest concern on the part of the judiciary is that a party involved with one aspect of a particular case or issue before the court would present themselves as members of the media. The concern of the judges and clerks was that these individuals could potentially disrupt court proceedings. The greatest fear around this issue came from judges who worked in the family court. They have seen cases of husbands coming into the court claiming to be members of the media who attempt to intimidate or disrupt the court's business. The members of the judiciary were concerned that greater access could create an environment that could exacerbate this problem.

3. Registration vs. Certification
Most of this discussion centered around whether journalists would have to register or be certified by the court. It took a while to get consensus on this issue. Members of the legal community and representatives from the judiciary felt it made sense to require advanced certification before a journalist could report from court. They felt this certification process would increase the accountability of the media working in the courtroom. Members of the media felt it would create unnecessary barriers of entry into the courts. The members of the media were concerned with who would be in charge of certification, and the criteria that would be used to grant certification.

Over several meetings, the members of the subcommittee agreed that registration would be a more streamlined process. Many of us on the committee envisioned the process as similar to how one registers to use a new piece of software. An individual would be required to provide contact information, to demonstrate that they are acting as a legitimate member of the media, and agree to comply with the rules that preserve the rights of individuals before the court. Though the registration process seems like a distinction without much of a difference from certification, the subcommittee agreed that it would increase access to the courts, which after all was the purpose of this rule in the first place.

Now What?

The proposed rule to change Rule 1:19 now is open to public comment until January 28, 2011. You can register your thoughts in the comment section of this blog, but you should also let the courts know how you feel about the proposed rule by going here.

In my next post, I'll write about the impact the amended Rule 1:19 will have on Order in the Court 2.0. You can get a preview of its impact on the project in an interview I did with Lawyers Weekly. You can can also read related coverage from WBUR.

November 17 2010

14:47

Order In The Court 2.0 Adds Staff, Plans Live-Streams from Court

In the last few weeks Order in the Court 2.0 has made enormous strides in moving forward with our project. Most importantly we've brought on board two very talented individuals who are responsible for the day-to-day operation of this project. Below is the note that I put out to the staff of WBUR, which is the home-base of this Knight News Challenge initiative.

New Staff

Joe Spurr and Val Wang are joining WBUR to work on our new online initiative, Order in the Court 2.0. Order in the Court 2.0 is a Knight News Challenge funded initiative that will explore the impact of digital technology on our nation's courts using Quincy District Court as a pilot courtroom.

Joe is the project's director and will be responsible for the design and development of the Order in the Court 2.0 website. He will also lead the development of the project's live-streaming capacity and work with the state court's chief technology office to build a system that serves the public, but also guarantees the rights of individuals who go before the court.

Joe joins us from KPBS where he was the station's lead web developer for the recently redesigned KPBS.org website. Prior to that he was the site's content producer where he pioneered the adoption of using Twitter and Google Maps in breaking news situations during the 2007 California wildfires. Joe is a Boston native, a graduate of Northeastern University and a former freelance reporter at the Boston Globe.

Val Wang is Order in the Court 2.0's producer and will oversee the production of the daily stream of written and video content originating out of Quincy District Court. She will also lead the project's social media outreach and be responsible for engaging the public with this initiative. Many of you may have already met Val while she has been here freelance producing for Here and Now and On Point. Val is an experienced multimedia producer who has worked for Reuters Television and NBC News. Most recently she was the multimedia producer for the UNICEF website where she won a prestigious Webby award for her work. Val has a master's degree in non-fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University and earned her undergraduate degree at Williams College.

Joe and Val will spend the next couple of months working at the station as the project takes shape. Starting early next year the project will be based out of Quincy District Court.

Their Roles

I also asked Joe and Val to describe a bit of how they see their respective roles in making this a successful project.

Here's Joe's:

As director of Order in the Court 2.0, much of my energy at the outset will focus on technology, so the stage can be set when we've got enough agreed-upon policy in place to make some baby steps in public. For now this means collaborating to wire-up the courtroom in Quincy to support a quality video stream, and helping design a site and set up its back-end in a way that best serves our anticipated primary content. With so many moving pieces ahead of us, we're whiteboarding a lot and keeping in touch as best we can with court officials and lawyers who have a vested interest in our success.

Once we're up and running, I imagine I'll be spending more time helping produce content, and hopefully vetting ideas to expand upon the site's basic public service as a window into the local justice system. My greater hope is that we pave the way a bit and create a blueprint of sorts for how to modernize a courtroom for public good: technology-wise and policy-wise. In tandem with that, to help us understand what's happening beyond the day-to-day, I think there's enormous potential value in mindfully archiving court proceedings and creating usable web applications to illuminate that data.

It's a fascinating time and I'm thrilled to be a part of an honest effort to help democracy evolve.

And here's Val's:

As the producer of Order in the Court 2.0, I'll be in Quincy District Court every day experimenting with how the latest technologies can be used to cover cases -- I'll be blogging and micro-blogging about cases, and video-streaming court proceedings, for starters. I'm excited to get a front row seat to the workings of the U.S. judicial system and to use these technologies to recreate the experience for the public. I like thinking about our project like a laboratory and will remain open and curious about what works and doesn't work about our coverage as we begin to craft guidelines that other courts can use in the future. This open-endedness is key to Order in the Court 2.0 and my hope is that the project will come alive with conversations among judges, lawyers on both sides, defendants, citizen journalists, local residents, and anyone interested in the workings of the U.S. legal system in the 21st century.

Right now we're spending a lot of our time on project management, establishing goals for the project and setting up a BaseCamp to coordinate our efforts.

We'd love to get feedback from all of you. What would you like to see come out of this project and how could we help you better understand what is going in the courts in your community?

September 28 2010

17:46

How is Privacy Protected with Transparency Coming to Courts?

Going into last week's meeting at Quincy District Court, Joan Kenney, the state court's chief public information officer and I had a quick phone meeting on what we were going to talk about at an upcoming meeting with Judge Andre A. Gelinas. Judge Gelinas, a retired justice who sat on the Massachusetts Appeals Court, now serves as the Special Advisor to the Chief Justice for Administration & Management for Information Technology.

In short, Judge Gelinas was going to be a legal referee for Order in the Court 2.0 who will help us determine what the project could or should be able to do in court. Another attendee due at the meeting was Judge Mark Coven, the Chief Judge at Quincy Court who has been an eager supporter and advocate for this project.

Joan and I decided that we'd keep the agenda short and simple. We wanted to get the judge's advice on these three issues:

  1. How should we post online the daily docket of court hearings each day?
  2. What concerns might Judge Gelinas have on live blogging from the courtroom?
  3. What concerns would he have about live video streaming from the courtroom?

Legal Issues Arise

The meeting took place the following day. It only lasted 45 minutes, but as you can see below the discussion was wide-ranging and covered many complex legal issues. Again and again, our conversation came back to the central issue of Order in the Court 2.0: How do you balance the public's right to know and the public's right to a fair trial? Here are some of the topics we touched upon during our meeting with the judges.

  • Domestic violence cases involving individuals who are in this country without legal documentation. Would photographing these individuals or posting their names online prevent victims from coming forward?
  • What would the rules be regarding open court discussions of the mental health issues of defendants? Would this be a violation of the state's Criminal Offender Record Information statute(CORI), which protects the rights of privacy of individuals charge or convicted of crimes?
  • Criminal records are constantly read in open court, especially during bail proceedings. Would the recording and posting of these criminal records online violate the CORI?
  • In addition to live streaming of courtroom proceedings, would Order in the Court 2.0 be archiving its content? If so, would the project become an official "keeper of the records" and have to follow state statutes that oversee such records?
  • What about the court's "virtual right of privacy"? This is the concept that the information the courts holds isn't immediately accessible to the public. For example, if an individual wants to see the file associated with a particular case, that person has to go to the court where the case is being heard and physically obtain the file from the court clerk. In the court's opinion, this barrier to immediate access protects the information in those files from companies like data miners who could use that information for profit. If Order in the Court 2.0 is posting everything it records online, would this be in violation of the virtual right of privacy? And just as importantly, should this virtual right of privacy be preserved?
  • What about cases where a defendant claims mistaken identity? Would posting their pictures online compromise their ability to get a fair trial?

Ground Rules

At our meeting both judges made it clear that our project would have to establish some legal ground rules on how we approach these issues. Judge Coven, who is a strong believer that anything in open court should be fair game, wants to make sure that cases heard at Quincy District Court would not be compromised by our project. He and Judge Gelinas felt that we would need to do some fairly significant legal research to explore the issues that came up during our discussion.

In our current configuration, no one working on this project will have any formal legal training. Due to that fact, the rest of the meeting was spent doing some serious brainstorming on how we would get started working on the legal guidelines that clearly are required for this project to go forward. It was determined that we would all reach out to our contacts within the Greater Boston legal academic community for some answers to the issues that had been raised.

The meeting made it clear that the work of Order in the Court 2.0 will be a useful resource for other projects that want to provide greater access to our nation's courts. Though it was a short meeting, it clearly demonstrated the important work we have ahead of us.

September 08 2010

15:26

A Groundbreaking Survey of New Media and The Courts

Late last month the Conference of Court Public Information Officers released the results of a nearly year-long study entitled, New Media and the Courts - The Current Status and a Look at the Future. I have anxiously been awaiting this report. I believe it will play a major role as we outline the activity of Order in the Court 2.0.

I first became aware of this study as I prepared my Knight News Challenge proposal. During the submission process, I consulted quite frequently with one of the co-authors of the CCPIO report, Chris Davey. Davey and I agreed that if I was fortunate enough to get funding we would test some of the ideas that surfaced in the CCPIO report.

The Survey

More than 16,000 individuals in the court community were invited to participate in the electronic survey. Of the 810 individuals who completed the full survey, 254 (or 31.3 percent) were judges or magistrates. The majority of the respondents were court system staff. Partners in the project include the National Center for State Courts, the nation's leading center for research assistance to the nation's state court systems, and the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.

Though the response to the survey was somewhat limited, there are some compelling topics outlined in CCPIO's final report. For those of you who don't want to take the time to read the 100-plus pages of text, I've boiled down some of the highlights in the text below.

Major Objectives

From the report:

The CCPIO New Media Project had five primary objectives: (1) clearly define the current technology, (2) systematically examine the ways courts use the technology, (3) empirically measure the perceptions of judges and top court administrators toward the technology, (4) collect and analyze the literature on public perceptions of the judiciary and court public outreach programs and (5) offer a framework and analysis for judges and court administrators to use for making decisions about the appropriate use of new media.

Court Culture vs. New Media Culture

The study succinctly described the culture clash between the courts and new media realities:

  • New media are decentralized and multidirectional, while the courts are institutional and largely unidirectional.
  • New media are personal and intimate, while the courts are separate, even cloistered, and, by definition, independent.
  • New media are multimedia, incorporating video and still images, audio and text, while the courts are highly textual.

Checklist on Using Social Media in the Courtroom

Probably the most important part of the report for us at Order in the Court 2.0 is found in Appendix B. There you'll find a valuable checklist that we plan to incorporate into our project. I've edited the checklist, but have tried to retain its essence. Here's the edited checklist:

  • What do you want to achieve? Public Education? Release of decisions? Highlight the activities of individual judges or courts? Explain court processes and procedures? Develop ongoing dialogues with the public to increase transparency?
  • How will you know if the resources you are dedicating to social media technologies are a good investment of time and money?
  • Do you have an efficient mechanism to monitor these technologies on a regular basis to ensure quality control?
  • Does your organization have a policy on how to handle defamatory or inappropriate remarks posted to social media sites outside the department?
  • What kind of involvement should the court's information technology division have in the decision to use social media technologies.
  • What are the technical requirements of introducing social media technology?
  • Are there criteria in place as to what topics can and cannot be discussed?
  • What safeguards are in place to ensure nothing is posted that jeopardizes a case or trial?
  • Do you have a prepared plan of action in place in the event a spectator is inappropriately using new media technology in your courtroom?

You can see we have a lot of work ahead of us.

September 01 2010

18:12

The Challenges of Life and Transparency at Quincy District Court

Now that the celebrations and congratulations are in the past, the hard work of building Order in the Court 2.0 has begun.

The idea that received the endorsement of the Knight News Challenge is now being tested in the real world with formal meetings with officials from the Massachusetts court system. I'm happy to report that we have so far received overwhelming support and encouragement for this project.

Our first meeting took place at the Quincy District Court where we met with Judge Mark Coven, the first justice of the court, the clerk of the court, the state court's public information officer, the state court's chief information officer and the state's director of court operations.

Touring the Courthouse With Judge Coven

Judge Coven set the tone of this meeting with his welcoming remarks and reinforced his enthusiasm for this project. He stressed its importance and how it was critical for the courts to have greater accessibility in order to build confidence in the judicial branch. He also made it clear that he wanted his courthouse to serve as a national model in determining the best practices for providing digital access to the public. After introductions, the judge provided us with a tour of the court.

After taking a few steps into the courthouse's lobby, the judge was approached by a young man who didn't look a day over 14 years old. He came to court that day to specifically thank the judge for his help in getting clean of drugs. It turns out the young man was in his late teens and had been in and out of court so many times that the judge knew him very well. He recently graduated from a drug treatment program the judge had sentenced him to in order to deal with a heroin addiction. It was easy to see the judge was touched by this man's special visit. Judge Coven took a father-like pride in the fact that he had offered this man a second chance.

Our tour continued through the busy courthouse with trips to the lock-up downstairs and meetings with court officers. I then spent the rest of the morning with the assistant court clerk who will be the day-to-day facilitator of this project. He too could not have been more enthusiastic. It was humbling to see that an idea that came out of the Knight News Challenge process was going to come to fruition and was going to have tangible support.

Transparency: Rewards and Risks

Since that initial meeting at the courthouse there have been meetings with the chief information officer of the state courts, Craig Burlingame. Burlingame is one of the most highly respected people in his field. He had just returned from Australia where he was helping the national government improve its computer records processes. Burlingame is incredibly knowledgeable about the particular challenges of getting the court's data out to the public. He is aware of the rewards of transparency, but he is also helping me understand the risks.

Here's an example. One goal of Order in the Court 2.0 is to post the daily docket at Quincy District Court. The docket lists the names of each defendant and cases that are scheduled for the day. The docket is produced by the state's computer system, which is called MassCourts. The docket is sent to each court in a searchable PDF document. If Order in the Court 2.0 were to post the docket through its website (which is not yet under construction), data mining agencies would have easy access to the information it contains. This, understandably, is an issue for the court.

Burlingame explained that it could seriously impact victims of crimes coming forward if they thought it might affect future job prospects or housing, since landlords use these services. He acknowledged that the docket is a public document posted at the courthouse; but to ensure the public's safety he needs to come up with a way to provide the document in a non-searchable PDF, and to seek the input of the judge assigned to preserve the integrity of the court's digital records.

It was striking to hear how something that initially seemed simple could be so complicated and require further judicial review. It was a perfect example of how the lessons we learn from this project will make it easier for future efforts to build greater court transparency.

One final footnote to this post. During a phone call with Judge Coven to set up another meeting, he reminded me of our conversation in the lobby with the young man who had come to thank him. He told me that the man was back in custody, and his family had come forward to request that he be recommitted because he was back on heroin. You couldn't miss the sadness in the judge's voice.

18:12

The Challenges of Life and Transparency at Quincy District Court

Now that the celebrations and congratulations are in the past, the hard work of building Order in the Court 2.0 has begun.

The idea that received the endorsement of the Knight News Challenge is now being tested in the real world with formal meetings with officials from the Massachusetts court system. I'm happy to report that we have so far received overwhelming support and encouragement for this project.

Our first meeting took place at the Quincy District Court where we met with Judge Mark Coven, the first justice of the court, the clerk of the court, the state court's public information officer, the state court's chief information officer and the state's director of court operations.

Touring the Courthouse With Judge Coven

Judge Coven set the tone of this meeting with his welcoming remarks and reinforced his enthusiasm for this project. He stressed its importance and how it was critical for the courts to have greater accessibility in order to build confidence in the judicial branch. He also made it clear that he wanted his courthouse to serve as a national model in determining the best practices for providing digital access to the public. After introductions, the judge provided us with a tour of the court.

After taking a few steps into the courthouse's lobby, the judge was approached by a young man who didn't look a day over 14 years old. He came to court that day to specifically thank the judge for his help in getting clean of drugs. It turns out the young man was in his late teens and had been in and out of court so many times that the judge knew him very well. He recently graduated from a drug treatment program the judge had sentenced him to in order to deal with a heroin addiction. It was easy to see the judge was touched by this man's special visit. Judge Coven took a father-like pride in the fact that he had offered this man a second chance.

Our tour continued through the busy courthouse with trips to the lock-up downstairs and meetings with court officers. I then spent the rest of the morning with the assistant court clerk who will be the day-to-day facilitator of this project. He too could not have been more enthusiastic. It was humbling to see that an idea that came out of the Knight News Challenge process was going to come to fruition and was going to have tangible support.

Transparency: Rewards and Risks

Since that initial meeting at the courthouse there have been meetings with the chief information officer of the state courts, Craig Burlingame. Burlingame is one of the most highly respected people in his field. He had just returned from Australia where he was helping the national government improve its computer records processes. Burlingame is incredibly knowledgeable about the particular challenges of getting the court's data out to the public. He is aware of the rewards of transparency, but he is also helping me understand the risks.

Here's an example. One goal of Order in the Court 2.0 is to post the daily docket at Quincy District Court. The docket lists the names of each defendant and cases that are scheduled for the day. The docket is produced by the state's computer system, which is called MassCourts. The docket is sent to each court in a searchable PDF document. If Order in the Court 2.0 were to post the docket through its website (which is not yet under construction), data mining agencies would have easy access to the information it contains. This, understandably, is an issue for the court.

Burlingame explained that it could seriously impact victims of crimes coming forward if they thought it might affect future job prospects or housing, since landlords use these services. He acknowledged that the docket is a public document posted at the courthouse; but to ensure the public's safety he needs to come up with a way to provide the document in a non-searchable PDF, and to seek the input of the judge assigned to preserve the integrity of the court's digital records.

It was striking to hear how something that initially seemed simple could be so complicated and require further judicial review. It was a perfect example of how the lessons we learn from this project will make it easier for future efforts to build greater court transparency.

One final footnote to this post. During a phone call with Judge Coven to set up another meeting, he reminded me of our conversation in the lobby with the young man who had come to thank him. He told me that the man was back in custody, and his family had come forward to request that he be recommitted because he was back on heroin. You couldn't miss the sadness in the judge's voice.

June 16 2010

19:00

Knight News Challenge: Order in the Court 2.0 wants to welcome the judiciary branch to the digital age

The debate over cameras in the Supreme Court is longstanding these days — but what about technology in courtrooms all over the country? One Knight News Challenge winner this year, Order in the Court 2.0, wants to bring new media to the judiciary.

I spoke with the man behind the idea, John Davidow, executive editor in charge of WBUR.org, the remarkable website for one of Boston’s public radio stations. Davidow said that the idea is to get the third branch of government to travel the same path to digital transparency that the legislative and executive branches have begun to do. Davidow said the court system has, by and large, continued to operate under the same video and audio recording standards it adopted in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The courts have sort of gone further and further way from the public and public access. In the old days, they were built in the center of town,” he told me. “The community was able to walk into the courts and see what was going on. Modern life has done away with that. The bridge that was going in between the courts and the public was the media. The media has just less resources.”

Davidow’s idea, which Knight awarded $250,000, is to use one courthouse as a laboratory, out of which will come a set of best practices and case studies for courtrooms across the country to reference. The test kitchen is the Quincy District Court here in Massachusetts, a courthouse Davidow described as ideal: Its chief judge is open to the idea, and the courthouse has a tradition of dabbling in new technologies. It’s also one of the busiest courthouses in the state, so it should also serve as a good model for even large courthouses.

I asked Davidow about how his idea differs from existing efforts to use new media in courthouses across the county. He explained that the problem is consistency: Decisions about new media decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, not systematically. Some judges make decisions based on space, others on whether a particular technology will disturb the court. The outcome is mixed: Yes, bloggers, you may cover the Scooter Libby trial, but, no Rod Blagojevich, you may not tweet during your trial. Davidow is also concerned about how many courthouses do not use new media themselves, not even making the daily docket available online.

Davidow hopes that a set of standards could help make new media and technologies that foster transparency and openness become just another normal part of the courthouse. One of the most interesting ways he thinks he’ll be able to achieve systematic success is through a broad network of stakeholders, already pieced together. “When I started formulating this, I made an awful lot of calls,” he told me. “I was fortunate enough to to find a conference of chief court information officers. They’re working on this same exact issue. They’re all trying to figure it out nationally.” The Conference of Court Public Information Officers has agreed to release a report at the end of the project, providing a framework for courts to handle new media questions. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Judiciary-Media Committee, composed of both journalists and judges, voted unanimously to support this project. Boston University’s School of Communication has volunteered to train “civic journalists” and court personnel. Our friends at Harvard’s Citizen Media Law Project, just down the street from the Lab, have also agreed to help.

Courts move slowly, and Davidow is prepared to face that challenge: “The term deliberation means something,” he joked. But with his test kitchen going, and many stakeholders supporting his effort, he hopes to get courthouses moving in a new media direction.

18:30

Announcing the 2010 Knight News Challenge winners: Visuals are hot, and businesses are big winners

They started out last year as a crowded field of hopefuls from around the world, each dreaming of a chance to perform under the big lights. Over months, their numbers dwindled as the level of competition rose; each successive round brought new disappointment to those eliminated and new hope to those left in the running. And now, whittled down to an elite few, they’re ready for the global stage.

Okay, I’m giving myself a yellow card: So maybe the World Cup isn’t the perfect metaphor for the Knight News Challenge. But the News Challenge is the closest thing the future-of-news space has to a World Cup, and while this year’s 12 winners — just announced at MIT — won’t be forced to battle each other for global supremacy, they do represent the top of a sizable pyramid of applicants — nearly 2,500 in all. You can judge for yourself which ones are Brazil and Germany and which are New Zealand and North Korea.

I’ve got information on all the winners below, but first a few observations:

Visuals seem to be this year’s theme: lots of projects about things like mapping, data visualization, video editing, and games inspired by editorial cartoons. Just one winner focuses on the business-model end of the equation (Windy Citizen’s real-time ads).

— This year’s new grants total $2.74 million. That’s up from last year’s total of $1.96 million, but still down substantially from the really big checks Knight was writing in the first two years of the News Challenge ($11.7 million in 2007, $5.5 million in 2008). The number of grantees is also up a bit from 2009 but well below earlier years (26 in 2007, 16 in 2008, 9 in 2009, 12 this year).

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Knight’s overall commitment has decreased over time. Many of its grants are distributed over multiple years, so some of those early commitments are still being in force.

— Despite extending this cycle’s application deadline in part to encourage more international applicants, the winners are quite domestic — 11 American winners out of 12. In 2008, there were six international winners, and last year there were two projects that, while technically based in the U.S., were internationally focused — Ushahidi and Mobile Media Toolkit. (You could argue that this year’s One-Eight should count as international, since it’s about covering Afghanistan, but through collaboration with the U.S. military. And while Tilemapping will focus on Washington, D.C., a version of its software was used after the Haiti earthquake.)

That said, the deadline extension was also about reaching out for other kinds of diversity, and that happened in at least one way: Knight reports that nearly half of this year’s winners are private companies, up from 15 percent in 2009. That’s despite Knight’s elimination of a separate category for commercial applicants last cycle.

Below are all the winners — congratulations to one and all, and my sympathies to the thousands eliminated along the way. In the coming days, we’ll have profiles of all of the winners and their projects. In the meantime, for context, you can also read all we wrote about last year’s News Challenge and what we’ve written so far about this cycle.

CityTracking

The winner: Eric Rodenbeck of Stamen Design

The amount: $400,000

The pitch: “To make municipal data easy to understand, CityTracking will allow users to create embeddable data visualizations that are appealing enough to spread virally and that are as easy to share as photos and videos. The dynamic interfaces will be appropriate to each data type, starting with crime and working through 311 calls for service, among others. The creators will use high design standards, making the visuals beautiful as well as useful.”

The Cartoonist

The winner: Ian Bogost of Georgia Tech and Michael Mateas of UC Santa Cruz

The amount: $378,000

The pitch: “To engage readers in the news, this project will create a free tool that produces cartoon-like current event games — the game equivalent of editorial cartoons. The simplified tools will be created with busy journalists and editors in mind, people who have the pulse of their community but don’t have a background in game development. By answering a series of questions about the major actors in a news event and making value judgments about their actions, The Cartoonist will automatically propose game rules and images. The games aim to help the sites draw readers and inspire them to explore the news.”

Local Wiki

The winner: Philip Neustrom and Mike Ivanov of DavisWiki.org

The amount: $350,000

The pitch: “Based on the successful DavisWiki.org in Davis, Calif., this project will create enhanced tools for local wikis, a new form of media that makes it easy for people to learn and share their own unique community knowledge. Members will be able to post articles about anything they like, edit others and upload photos and files. This grant will help create the specialized open-source software that makes the wiki possible and help communities develop, launch and sustain local wiki projects.”

WindyCitizen’s Real Time Ads

The winner: Brad Flora of WindyCitizen.com

The amount: $250,000

The pitch: “As a way to help online startups become sustainable, this project will develop an improved software interface to help sites create and sell what are known as real-time ads. These ads are designed to be engaging as they constantly change showing the latest message or post from the advertisers Twitter account, Facebook page or blog. Challenge winner Brad Flora helped pioneer the idea on his Chicago news site, WindyCitizen.com.”

GoMap Riga

The winner: Marcis Rubenis and Kristofs Blaus

The amount: $250,000

The pitch: “To inspire people to get involved in their community, this project will create a live, online map with local news and activities. GoMap Riga will pull some content from the Web and place it automatically on the map. Residents will be able to add their own news, pictures and videos while discussing what is happening around them. GoMap Riga will be integrated with the major existing social networks and allow civic participation through mobile technology. The project will be tested in Riga, Latvia, and ultimately be applicable in other cities.”

Order in the Court 2.0

The winner: John Davidow of WBUR

The amount: $250,000

The pitch: “To foster greater access to the judicial process, this project will create a laboratory in a Boston courtroom to help establish best practices for digital coverage that can be replicated and adopted throughout the nation. While the legislative and executive branches have incorporated new technologies and social media, the courts still operate under the video and audio recording standards established in the 1970s and ’80s. The courtroom will have a designated area for live blogging via a Wi-Fi network and the ability to live-stream court proceedings to the public. Working in conjunction with the Massachusetts court system, the project will publish the daily docket on the Web and build a knowledge wiki for the public with common legal terms.”

Porch Forum

The winner: Michael Wood-Lewis of Front Porch Forum

The amount: $220,000

The pitch: “To help residents connect with others and their community, this grant will help rebuild and enhance a successful community news site, expand it to more towns and release the software so other organizations, anywhere can use it. The Front Porch Forum, a virtual town hall space, helps residents share and discuss local news, build community and increase engagement. The site, currently serving 25 Vermont towns, will expand to 250.”

One-Eight

The winner: Teru Kuwayama

The amount: $202,000

The pitch: “Broadening the perspectives that surround U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, this project will chronicle a battalion by combining reporting from embedded journalists with user-generated content from the Marines themselves. The troops, recently authorized to use social media while deployed, and their families will be key audiences for the online journal steering, challenging and augmenting the coverage with their feedback. The approach will directly serve the stakeholders and inform the wider public by bringing in on-the-ground views on military issues and the execution of U.S. foreign policy.”

Stroome

The winner: USC Annenberg’s Nonny de la Peña and Tom Grasty

The amount: $200,000

The pitch: “To simplify the production of news video, Stroome will create a virtual video-editing studio. There, correspondents, editors and producers will be able to upload and share content, edit and remix with friends and colleagues — all without using expensive satellite truck technology. The site will launch as eyewitness video — often captured by mobile phones or webcams — is becoming a key component of news coverage, generating demand for supporting tools.”

CitySeed

The winner: Arizona State’s Retha Hill and Cody Shotwell

The amount: $90,000

The pitch: “To inform and engage communities, CitySeed will be a mobile application that allows users to plant the ’seed’ of an idea and share it with others. For example, a person might come across a great spot for a community garden. At that moment, the person can use the CitySeed app to geotag the idea, which links it to an exact location. Others can look at the place-based ideas, debate and hopefully act on them. The project aims to increase the number of people informed about and engaged with their communities by breaking down community issues into bite-size settings.”

StoryMarket

The winner: Jake Shapiro of PRX

The amount: $75,000

The pitch: “Building on the software created by 2008 challenge winner Spot.us, this project will allow anyone to pitch and help pay to produce a story for a local public radio station. When the amount is raised (in small contributions), the station will hire a professional journalist to do the report. The project provides a new way for public radio stations to raise money, produce more local content and engage listeners.”

Tilemapping

The winner: Eric Gundersen of Development Seed

The amount: $74,000

The pitch: “To inspire residents to learn about local issues, Tilemapping will help local media create hyper-local, data-filled maps for their websites and blogs. Journalists will be able to tell more textured stories, while residents will be able to draw connections to their physical communities in new ways. The tools will be tested in Washington, D.C. Ushahidi, a 2009 Knight News Challenge winner, used a prototype after the earthquake in Haiti to create maps used to crowdsource reports on places needing aid.”

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