The Legal Information Needs of Poor and Middle Income People and the Organizations that Advocate for Them

Richard Zorza, Esq. 

 

Paper Five: Emerging Technological Potential in Support of a Legal Information Infrastructure

Introduction

This paper focuses on the emerging potential of technological advances to transform the ways that the legal information needs of poor and middle income people and the organizations that advocate for them might be met.The paper is one of a series prepared under the Chicago Kent Law School/Open Society Institute Consultancy.

Summary: Technologies already in emerging use offer the potential to restructure the content provider to consumer relationship.

The summary conclusion of this paper is that there are important emerging and already deployed technologies that offer significant opportunities to build new ways of meeting these needs. 

However, it is not clear that merely transferring these technologies to the legal services context will be sufficient.Rather changes in both content providing and content consuming organizations will be needed for these innovations to be used to best effect.

Changes in Screen Design and Access Technology Provide for Improved Capacity

Since the explosion in the Internet portal market, there has been a major change in the way these portals – on-line gateways to information -- are designed and used.The strong trend is to highly customized screen appearance, in which the user's prior usage history at the site helps determine the visual experience of the portal.

At the simplest level, this means that the user is welcomed by name: “Welcome Richard”.At the next level, the system offers the user the option to customize their own display by answering questions – where do you live, what sports team do you favor, which newspapers news are you most interested in?

The next level customization is driven not by the users conscious choice but by the information the portal has collected about the users prior selections and behavior.A portal can, for example give a user news based on the news links that the user has previously followed, or can tell of new books based on prior interests of purchases of the user.Of course, as time goes by, more and more of this information is driven by commercial and marketing concerns, and more and more of it is provided by content owners outside, but in partnership with the portal itself.Depending on the marketing strategies and the relative bargaining power of the partners, this linkage may be totally transparent, or totally obvious to the user.[1]

This capacity is driven by improvements in power of the databases linked to the web servers, and by changes in the way client software on the users computer communicates with the servers on which the data is stored.[2]

The same kind of technology can be used to create user-specific legal home pages for either clients or advocates.

Changes in Search and Finding Technologies and Methodologies Provide Similar Advantages

As even the most mundane and routine use of the world wide web reveals, searching technologies themselves are becoming far more sophisticated.[3]There are two main and ultimately related themes.

Firstly, the volume of information indexed on the web is increasing exponentially. 

Secondly, of necessity, driven by the impossibility of finding what the user needs finding mechanismsare coming to depend less and less on raw indexing strength, and more and more on patters of prior searches, on automatic intelligent editing of searches on and relationship between sites and usage.[4]More and more of the search sites are driven by experience, and by detailed expert review of the information.[5]

Similarly, branding is becoming more and more important, with specialist sites having the most detailed information, being recognized in the market as the leaders, and being linked to by the main portals.These links are the subject of complex and high-powered financial transactions.

Changes in Information Structuring Technology Could be Used to Create a Source Independent Information Integration System

The currently available paper and web-based legal information systems suffer from the same fundamental defects of widely divergent information structuring.[6]In other words, each web site is structured differently, the content itself is organized differently each one provides different search tools, and each one is largely independent of others.[7]

To the extent that there is cross linking by hyper-linking from website to website, the system is idiosyncratic rather than systematic, and its utility for any one user is dependant on chance rather than on plan.Similarly, even if the material is properly findable in a search engine, it is hard to search in terms that the information is actually needed, or in the ways that it is thought about by the searcher.

Extensible Markup Language (XML) offers some solutions to these problems of the legal community, potentially both in terms of client data and advocate data.Put succinctly, XML allows information (including legal information) to be structured in such a way that it can be retrieved according to its content, not just its words.This is achieved by having the content “labeled” and structured according to pre-existing rules and definitions.Such rules and definitions can be established for any field, and indeed have been established for many fields.[8]

In the legal information context, an XML standard might include information about type of legal material, date, author, substantive content, topic area, skill needed, and the like.Indeed, various working groups and various private vendors are already building varied XML standards for the legal community.[9]

Such client and advocate XML standards would make it easy for centralized systems to access information on many many servers, index them, and make them available to large populations.Most importantly, submission to these systems could be automated.

The Development of “Push” Technologies that, Under Central Control Feed Information out to an Information Consuming Community, Raises Possibilities for Legal Information Distribution

In the last year couple of years, the inadequacies of going to look for data on the web have lead to experimentation with “Push” technologies.While these technologies take many forms, essentially they allow a central server to “push” news, information, or indeed any kind of content, out to a community of users.The news or other content appears on a “ticker” across the screen, on a screen saver, or on a special menu bar.Some products require the installation of special software on the desktop computer.

One of the major commercial products is Entry Point, which offers the typicalscrolling “ticker” and customizable menu bar on the downloadable desktop.[10]Within the legal services community, the main implementation of this technology has been Handsnet, the first and most traditional provider of news content to the legal services community.The Handsnet WebClipper routinely monitors about 500 websites for changes or additions, and sends subscribers a daily e-mail bulletin listing these changes and providing links.Each user can customize his or her feed based on interests such as “families and children.”

While the legal services community has made some use of this tool, its adoption has been relatively limited.Generally the feedback seems to be that the information is too general, and not specific to the legal services community.However, Handsnet has created a working technology that actually delivers updates on line and is currently functioning.As such it provides an important model, and a source of lessons.A Handsnet subscription costs $100 a year or $10 a month[11].

Similarly, BackWeb is a commercial product that is programmed to pre-review certain environments, collect additionally submitted information, and send it out, filtered by subscriber filters to users.This software is expensive, very awkward to install and use, and is therefore used mainly by corporations that seek to maintain very tight control over their users; it illustrates the changes that are occurring in information retrieval.[12]

Changes in Information Submission Models Will Make Creation of a Functioning System Far Easier

Until recently most web pages were written directly in HTML, the formatting language of the world wide web.That meant that for information on a page to change that change had to be completely re-edited.

For pages that had to change regularly, such as calendars, publication lists, resource lists, or newspapers such as he New York Times[13] that was highly labor intensive and very expensive.Recent developments and new software products such as Cold Fusion[14] (a web authoring environment) make it possible for programmers to build systems that let people fill in a simple on-line web from which automatically updates the appropriate web pages.[15]

The submission form can be built so that the submitter describes the information, categorizing it by subject, keyword, date, etc.A user can then request that the display web page show only that information.[16]

Within the legal services community, the best example of this approach is ProBononet,[17] in which calendars and resource information for different practice areas are submitted by experts in appropriate organizations.Probono.net provides an important model both technically and organizationally.Other nonprofit examples include Open Studio – The Arts On-line, a collaboration of the Benton Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts,[18] and Connect for Kids, a multi-featured site that provides resources for child-serving organizations and communities.[19]

Packages such as iRenaissance[20] are commercially built software environments that come with templates that allow for any group of organizations to create a centralized web site to which information and calendars can be submitted by all member organizations, and which can be viewed according to pre-set filters.

High Level E-Commerce Enabling Software Holds Potential, but is Very Expensive

Far more sophisticated tools for development of high capacity electronic commerce sites also exist.These products, marketed by the largest vendors are designed to make it possible to build multi-million hit servers that are fully robust..They are highly expensive (close to a million dollars), and require skilled programming and maintenance.Their advantage is their great stability.Like Cold Fusion, they work only on servers that carry special enabling software and templates.Like Cold Fusion and its related products, they are designed to support complex transactions, not just mange the distribution of content.Such technology might be needed in the long term for national on-line representationmanagement, but will not be needed for the first generation type of services currently under consideration.[21]

The Development of the Application Server Provider Model May Make Expensive Software and Programming More Available to the Legal Services Community.

An important and emerging repositioning of the entire software distribution system may make it easier for nonprofit groups like legal services to take advantage of higher level authoring software.The basic idea of ASP (Application Software Provider) software is that end user organizations, instead of purchasing software licenses and installing them on their own servers, will rent access to and use of the software on central commercial servers on an as needed basis.[22]The companies and organizations that provide these services will offer a range of assistance, from mere software licenses, to aggressive customization to meet individual user need.

Using this model, for example a legal services information entity, instead of purchasing their own servers, server software and programming language, would rent (or be given) access to this software on already functioning Internet servers. Such servers could handle case management, intake, referral, information, litigation support, and indeed the whole emerging legal technology support system.[23]

This would make it far easier for an innovation to start up without huge start-up costs and maintenance and programming overhead.[24]

Existing Training Delivery systems Offer Potential

The development of training delivery systems in the private sector and the university, also offers technologies that can be adopted for use in the legal and community environment.[25]These technologies deliver systems of lectures, classes, materials, exams, and feedback all over the Internet. Indeed the rapidly developing commercial delivery of education over the Internet is causing great fear in the more traditional academic environments.[26] These technologies are the subject of experiments being conducted by the nonprofit Practicing Law Institute.[27]

With These Tools, It Is possible to Start to Design More Integrated Model for Client Information

Taken together, these new tools and technologies offer great potential to develop an easy to user, broadly accessible fully integrated law help system aimed at the low and middle income community.Particularly important are the capacities of XML and submission technology to together create systems in which a wide variety of content can easily be submitted, structured and displayed without continual reprogramming.

With These Tools, it is Possible to Start to Design a More Integrated Model for Advocate Information

The same tools, particularly when combined with the customization tools used so extensively in the private sector, will make it possible to create an advocate desktop, continually updated, highly useful and relevant to the day to day work of the advocate, and designed to build community.

Conclusion

There have been prior attempts to use technology to provide content to the poverty advocacy community.The combination of new technologies, and the broad in-place deployment environment mean that the task of deploying the solutions now being planned will be far easier.The challenge is to create the complex consortia and institutions capable of taking full advantage of these potentials for client and advocates and for the whole community.

Copyright Reserved 2000


[1]One of the better known examples of such customization is www.excite.com (“Choose the headline news, stock quotes, and sport scores that interest you most.Personalize your page with your favorite colors, personal reminders, local events, weather, horoscopes, TV listings, and more.”The page includes options for personalized planners, reminders, news releases, local events, customized stock tracking [in association with Schwab], editable news feeds in which the user selects the news services to be displayed and how they are to be displayed, browsable photos, a self-editable list of purchasing and service links, etc.In other words it is moving to become the users “lifepage.”www.mynetscape.com is similar.
[2]The fundamental technology is “cookies,” by which an identifier is placed on the client computer.When the client communicates with a server, the client transmits the cookie up to the host, and the host software then identifies the user.Extensive data on the host is then associated with the particular user’s account.A user can disable the “cookie” feature on the client machine.
[3]The best general source of information on search engines is at www.searchenginewatch.com.
[4]Some of these changes, with particular importance for the potential structure of nonprofit/private partnerships, are discussed in Paper Four.
MCI Worldcom is financing a project that brings together a number of major intellectual and academic content providers with a view to creating a quality oriented search system with a particular focus on possible school use.This will use the XML technology discussed below in this paper.

 
[5]One of the best examples is www.about.com.To build such sites, Netscape, for example, recruits on-line content reviewers. An interesting medical journal research tool being developed can be found a thttp://jake.med.yale.edu/.
[6]Ironically, of course, the very reason that the world wide web spread so fast was that it facilitated themassive and rapid integration of data worldwide regardless of the form in which each particular piece of contributing data was organized.
[7]However technology does exist to allow search tools to pass queries to each other.
[8]An excellent summary of the XML concept by two of its founders was published in Scientific American and appears at www.sciam.com/1999/0599issue/0599bosak.html.
[9]Up to date information on these legal XML efforts can be obtained at www.legal-xml.org.It is particularly suggestive that the Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School is aggressively investigating the potential of XML for secondary legal content.
[10]The product may be downloaded from www.entrypoint.com.It is a derivative of a once highly popular product called Pointcast.A somewhat out of date,but initially comprehensive list of these products can be viewed at www.strom.com/places/t4a.html.
[11]Detailed subscription information is at www.handsnet.org/information1239/information.htm.
[12]BackWeb was installed on an experimental basis by OMB Watch over the summer of 1999 to test its potential as a central information source for the entire nonprofit community.These conclusions are drawn from the author’s participation in that experiment and from the formal evaluation of that relatively brief test.
BackWeb’s URL is www.backweb.com.Backweb claims British Telecom, Cisco, and Pac Bell as users andreports that Inter@ctive week calculates that the company is number 115 in the Internet revenue stakes.

 
[14]The product description appears at www.coldfusion.com/Products/ColdFusion/.The product is made by Allaire and is part of a suite of products aimed at different sizes of sites.
[15]Actually, the submitted information is transferred to and held in a Structured Query Language (SQL) database.The web page software then goes to the database and reads the contents of the database and reformats it into web page format whenever the page is to be read.
[16]The submitted descriptive information about the information is also held in the database.When a subset of information is requested, the accessing software performs a search on this descriptive data, and displays only that information that meets the search criteria.The formatting of the display reflects the users needs and interest.
[17]The site can be accessed at www.probono.net.Viewing its full utility requires a member password.
[18]The site can be accessed at www.openstudio.org.
[19]This site can be accessed at www.connectforkids.org.
[20]A demonstration of the technology can be viewed, and a working set of the software can be downloaded, from http://www.calendarcentral.com.
[21]Moreover, as products such as Cold Fusion become more sophisticated, they are likely to be able to manage much of this greater load.See, e.g., www.allaire.com/products/spectrafor a description of the e-commerce tool kit built on top of Cold Fusion.
[22]A brief explanation of the concept provided by the International Data Corporation a major technology research firm which claims to have coned the name, can be found at www.idcresearch.com/Data/Internet/content/NET032699PR.htm.The major on-line gateway to ASP’s is at www.webharbor.com.
The ASP industry already has its own consortium with about 200 corporate members, www.aspindustry.org.Examples of leading private sector ASP vendors include those found at www.app-hosting.comand www.applicast.com,

 
[23]ASP’s targeted at the commercial legal market have already been announced.Examples include iPaperChase.com, which will be a litigation support ASP, www.webharbor.com/pr/99/pr908eba.htm(announcement of partnership; the iPaperChase.com URL does not yet appear on the web, however); Serengeti, www.serengetiUS.com (“Serengeti, an ELF Solution, is the only Application Service Provider [ASP] whose mission is to help corporate legal departments and law firms work more intelligently, productively and profitably with each other.”)
[24]The ASP model carries with it several risks.The greatest danger for the financially strapped nonprofit community is that it will be forced to carry regular high ASP charges as an additional overhead.It is also possible that the centralization inherent in the ASP model will hinder innovation.Legal services programs are likely to fear that they will lose control over confidential or privileged information.
[25]One gateway into this huge environment can be found at http://dir.altavista.com/Reference/Education/32969.shtml
[26]Compare, www.lawtutorsonline.co.uk, (UK site includes ability to study for University of London External Programme LLB and LLM degrees; examination is by the University).
[27]Materials can be viewed at www.pli.edu.PLI is a potential partner in a future project.