Open Courts

opencourts

The Guardian kindly published an excerpt from an article I wrote about a ReStart Slovakia finalist.  The full version went as follows:

Glancing back and forth between the two college kids and what looked like the underside of a jellyfish on their laptop, I was at a bit of a loss for words.  ‘So I am looking at a visual representation of the connections between judges, plaintiffs and defendants, and court decisions by topic, for every court case in Slovakia since 1997?’ Smiling, the kid replied ‘basically. It’s almost 400,000 decisions downloaded, scraped, indexed and cleaned up.’  And… why did you decide to do this?  ‘Well, I couldn’t find a case I was interested in.  The Department of Justice site was just so poorly organized.  And besides, it seemed like a good idea.’

Meet Pavol and Samuel, computer science majors who had no particular social change agenda.  They were not, and are not, out to take on their national judiciary or serve some higher power of social justice.  They just couldn’t find what they were looking for.  Enter serendipity.  Samuel saw a ReStart Slovakia poster in a hallway.  He decided to join the campaign, find some support, build the solution to their lack-of-court-transparency conundrum.  Who knows, maybe win.  Could be fun right?

ReStart Challenges, an TechSoup initiative, seek to support socially entrepreneurial leaders who wish to engage their countrymen in a variety of citizen democracy issues, primarily those surrounding transparency and accountability.  Five ReStart campaigns since September 2012 have sourced more than 1,000 ideas from people like Pavol and Samuel in Romania, Czech Republic, and Slovakia.  Through a public voting and jury process the ideas are whittled down to seven finalists per Challenge. The finalists’ ideas are then prototyped before, at a final ‘pitch’ event, 3 to 5 are chosen for launch funding and incubation.

Through this process, communities of practice are formed around each finalist, social-good technology products find their way to market, and perhaps most importantly, people of all kinds (e.g. long time advocacy leaders, students, stay-at-home-moms, journalists, and programmers) find their place in generating social change.

On stage at the ReStart launch party for their final pitch, Pavol and Samuel, gangly and in T-shirts, stuttered through a power point.  Filled with stats and text, it left no doubt about their programmer background.  They laughingly announced they had downloaded 135% of the total number of documents available on the Ministry of Justice web site (depending on the day the numbers of documents fluctuates enormously).  Their project, as they explained, had so far gathered and indexed 80 gigabytes worth of PDFs covering 95% of judicial rulings and 97% of hearings.  They had developed a parsing tool to pull information such as court, name of the judge, defendant and plaintiff (individuals or businesses), hearing date, type of trial (civil or criminal), and decree.  They had de-duped and cleaned up the data, run some statistical analyses and set up some ‘basic’ visualizations.  A huge amount of work, in short, that they bequeathed to the community by announcing that the code is modular and available for free download on github. Anyone can now get it, tweak it, and get down to data scraping.

As far as Pavol and Samuel are concerned, what they did is exciting but will become more so in the coming months. It gets really fun when new data sets can be merged and statistics start highlighting new stories.  Transparency International Slovakia has approached them to do just that, proposing to add another 10 data sets they have aggregated to the mix.  Pavol and Samuel think this is a ‘brilliant idea’ but they estimate it would take about a year to complete.  Before they start they want to launch a ‘better version of the page the Ministry of Justice provides right now.’ They also plan further work on their code.  Right now it is fast and increasingly automatic, downloading and indexing new files each night, but they think they can do better.

Dubbed ‘Open Courts,’ their project is, according to many I spoke with, potentially the most influential data set available to Slovak civil society in the last 20 years.  It makes publicly available but unusable data accessible and useful.  Most were wondering how quickly they could try applying the program to other data gathered over the years, such as information on politicians’ business holdings, public procurement contract disputes, etc… all of which may have interesting links to particular judges, courts, and trials.

Beyond Slovakia, Open Courts provides a model and tool for others interested in data driven advocacy. Years of local advocacy in nominally democratic regions like Eastern Europe, international pressure, and initiatives like the Open Government Partnership have led to a great deal of data being available on request.  Usually one can download information from ministerial websites or access it through Freedom of Information petitions. However, as transparency advocates well know, the data are usually available only in disaggregated, un-digestible formats. Retyping data into useful forms becomes incredibly time and cost intensive, killing many good data-driven concepts.  Open Courts, and a variety of tools like it designed primarily for data journalists, are lowering the barriers to gather and organize data, opening the door to advocacy initiatives in places where governments have often been able to stymie efforts through procrastination and obfuscation.

Pavol and Samuel also represent an interesting trend in the decentralization and democratization of social justice.  Their skills, interests, and curiosity lower previously formidable barriers.  Their social media awareness facilitates rapidly bringing together communities of like-minded, encouraging individuals who offer a sense of citizen mandate.  They, and many of their youthful peers, are not particularly concerned with long-term structural, institutional, or juridical change.  They would rather focus on campaigning around on/off issues.  Start, stop, flick a switch; they couldn’t find what they wanted; now they can.

Samuel and Pavol’s eyes twinkle at the data and technical intrigue of their project.  They are happy that people are interested in their brainchild.  They aren’t planning on going much further on their own once the project is completed, but are happy to support others.  Pavol and Samuel do not want to start an NGO.  They don’t associate themselves with the term ‘civil society,’ or appear to have any more faith in the third sector than they do in government.  Their aim is to solve a problem through information.  Their approach does not look much like a standard civil society process of researching, reflecting, and advocating.  It looks like data-based for-profit apps, which tell you useful things like when your train is going to be late.  Yet there they are, almost unintentionally providing a win in the ongoing war for more transparent democracies.

Samuel and Pavol exemplify an emerging form of civil interaction.  They, and hundreds of ‘not quite NGO-folks’ like them are playing by a new set of rules that maps on to for-profit tech startup techniques and relies on an interaction model of rapid design and testing, simple interaction, and visualization they learned from social media.  They are unconcerned with traditionally troublesome civil society topics like ‘sustainability’ and ‘impact assessment.’

And for these reasons, they are easy to dismiss.  To be fair, their interests are pretty temporal – they push until they have solved their problem.  And to the trained civil society eye, theirs is only one among hundreds.  Then they move on.

What they deliver before they jump to the next thing, however, can be immensely valuable – particularly if it is leveraged by established organizations focused on systemic change. The individuals who follow projects like Open Courts on facebook represent an enormous amount of human capital.  Data for mining and leveraging are widely available.  And there is an opportunity to quit complaining that clicktivism is not good enough and for civil society to try to engaging the online generations where they are.  When successful, these clicks do empower people as they see their problems solved. Once they do, it is up to us to continue engaging them and build faith that the interminable wars for more open societies can indeed be won.

Pavol and Samuel were still smiling as they left the stage at the Launch Event.  They said they didn’t care whether they won or not when the audience of diplomats and NGO and corporate leaders voted to pick the top three.  True or not, I was happy when they won a grant of 5,000 Euro.  Joining them were two other projects, one an app for determining the legality of contractual terms and the other a ‘rank-your-professor’ app for Slovak Universities.  In addition, they and all seven finalists will have access to a variety of training opportunities, diplomatic community support, media exposure, and hopefully additional funding from members of the corporate community who made pledges at the event.

Together they join a movement of ReStarters – former white-paper writing types, hackers, journalists, advocacy experts, and a guy who sells washing machines as his day job – who are actively addressing Central and Eastern Europe’s transparency and accountability issues through platforms, sites, and apps of their own design.  They address the flow of taxes, deforestation, the distribution (or not) of vital medicines, citizen reporting of corruption in the medical system, accessibility and more.

Traditional advocacy organizations and governments themselves should seriously consider accessing the openness and energy of folks like Pavol and Samuel through totally open (i.e. you never know quite what you are going to get) grand challenges, hack-a-thons, social innovation camps etc…  or more structured processed like those pioneered Effective Services Delivery in the UK (www.esd.org.uk).  Hacktivists and their non-techie friends can be valuable allies.  They are aggregating citizen constituencies, demonstrating participatory democracy, and winning those little victories that, with time and persistence, hopefully reach enough people to effect mass citizen-driven change. We don’t seem to have a commonly understood vocabulary to describe the shift in social engagement they and their generation represent.  That should not inhibit us from openly partnering with the Pavols and Samuels – engaging hacktivists around the hundreds of small wins that might come together to produce a virtuous cycle of near real-time data, growing constituencies, and demonstrable shifts in citizen behaviors that could underwrite responsible legislative action.

Or don’t reach out.  They are going to do their thing anyway.

Since publishing Samuel and Pavol went on to set up a partnership with Transparency International Slovakia and will be mashing up all kinds of interesting datasets with the original…

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