Post Process has blogged in the past (many times) about the importance of understanding computing, logic structures, storage, and associated topics for e-discovery professionals. Law is becoming digitized, even if it is against the will of a significant portion of those in practice. The challenges of e-discovery, however, are merely the symptom of something bigger. Society is being transformed on multiple fronts. The area of my concern is, of course, information technology. The spread of computers and the advent of (nearly) global connectivity are creating a revolution that not only offers intriguing promise, but also very difficult challenges. Transformational technologies are also disruptive, by their nature. To get a glimpse into the changes, take a look at an article posted by John Mecklin of Miller-McCune, discussing computing’s encroachment into the world of investigative journalism, and the new field of computational journalism.
Now, though, the digital revolution that has been undermining in-depth reportage may be ready to give something back, through a new academic and professional discipline known in some quarters as “computational journalism.” James Hamilton is director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University and one of the leaders in the emergent field; just now, he’s in the process of filling an endowed chair with a professor who will develop sophisticated computing tools that enhance the capabilities — and, perhaps more important in this economic climate, the efficiency — of journalists and other citizens who are trying to hold public officials and institutions accountable.
Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation and a veteran investigative reporter and editor, summarizes the nonprofit’s aim as “one-click” government transparency, to be achieved by funding online technology that does some of what investigative reporters always have done: gather records and cross-check them against one another, in hopes of finding signs or patterns of problems. Allison has had a distinguished career, from his work as an investigative reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer to his investigative duties at the Center for Public Integrity, where he co-authored The Cheating of America with legendary center founder Charles Lewis. Before he came to the Sunlight Foundation, Allison says, the notion that computer algorithms could do a significant part of what investigative reporters have always done seemed “far-fetched.”
But there’s nothing far-fetched about the use of data-mining techniques in the pursuit of patterns. Law firms already use data “chewers” to parse the thousands of pages of information they get in the discovery phase of legal actions, Allison notes, looking for key phrases and terms and sorting the probative wheat from the chaff and, in the process, “learning” to be smarter in their further searches.
The point is that while we often hear complaints on how difficult e-discovery is, the legal profession (among others) is being transformed. Issues that we face in our own workspaces are often due to societal trends over which we do not have control. There are pain points everywhere, but sometimes just stepping back and looking at the big picture can be rewarding.