That was certainly news to O’Hara, who over the course of her 17-year career has worked on big data initiatives in employment, health, and housing, and had assumed that the management of civil justice data must run along similar lines. When Rostain, who studies the civil justice system, suggested collaborating to make more data available to researchers, O’Hara didn’t foresee any major issues — until she began looking into it.
“When I came into the field, I realized there’s hardly any research, because there’s hardly any data,” O’Hara said. “And the data that is available is held in the courts where the cases are handled. It means we have a very limited understanding of who is passing through the system, the outcomes, and the impacts of being involved in civil cases, as well as how efficiently and fairly the courts are dealing with them.”
For O’Hara and Rostain, the potential for a “Civil Justice Data Commons” is huge. It could unlock the kinds of insights that could improve access to civil justice in local communities, protect the privacy of data subjects, and help the courts become more efficient and accountable. It is also a huge challenge that requires a sophisticated technological solution and complex coalition building across the civil justice space.
“We interviewed dozens of court personnel, judges, and nonprofits as part of our initial fact-finding,” said O’Hara. “We had all this information, but we couldn’t quite figure out how to move forward.”
They knew they needed advanced data storage and analytics technology to help them realize their vision. They engaged with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to discuss cloud computing services — a collaboration that began with AWS guiding them through Amazon’s “working backwards” approach to innovation. Amazon uses this approach to come up with its own products and services, focusing on customer needs first, rather than technical solutions.
“Going through the Amazon working backwards process was the real turning point,” said O’Hara. “It helped us carve off everything we were doing that was unnecessary and focus on who our customer was, how they would interact with the data commons, and how we would match their needs with Georgetown’s capabilities.”
“We had multiple sessions with folks from AWS, and each time, either myself or one of my colleagues had at least one epiphany, when we thought, ‘This is what we’re trying to do.’”
Rostain agreed, calling the process “revelatory.”
“We were able to map all the steps to address the barriers faced by courts to sharing data and to provide researchers with fast, frictionless, and facilitated access to data,” she said.
O’Hara and Rostain hope that getting researchers the data they need, as well as encouraging more standardization of data, will lead to the identification of trends that could inform policies with potentially life-changing effects for people and local communities.
“Let’s take evictions as an example,” said O’Hara. “A recent study by some of our colleagues at Georgetown found that the fee to file for an eviction in Washington, D.C., is so low that many landlords end up taking someone to court simply to collect rent.”
While for the landlord this is just a question of how best to get the money they’re owed, for the individual, it could be the difference between whether they will ever be able to rent again.