Thursday, February 12, 2009

ICT at Victorian February 2009 Bushfire Royal Commission

On 9 February the Premier of Victorian announced a Royal Commission into the weekend bushfires. The inquiry will be a large undertaking. As with the ACT Coroner's investigation into the 2003 Canberra Firestorm, computer based systems are likely to be extensively used in the investigation.

ACT Coroner's court bushfire setup

The ACT Coroner's court was equipped with about fifteen large LCD screens, on the desks for the legal teams, for the Coroner and for the witness. The screens display electronic documents in evidence and a continuous transcript of what is being said. There was an operator at the front controlled what documents were displayed and had an electronic document camera to scan new documents.

While most screens were displaying the same evidence, individuals could use a web browser to view other documents and carry out searches. Large wall mounted flat screens displaying the same electronic documents as on the LCD screens. A video monitor showed what cameras were recording of the Coroner, the witness, the general room and the document display. At the back of the room were two people monitoring the video, audio and text recording.

There were problems with the room layout. The large LCD screens blocked sightlines to the bench and witness. The wall mounted screens were not readable from the back of the room.

There were microphones at each position. However, a witness reported having difficulty hearing what was being asked, as did the observers. The screen on the witness stand was at the side, so when asked to examine a document the witness had to turn away from the room and towards the side wall. In this position they could not see the person asking the question, nor could the microphone pick up their answer.

It appears that documents were scanned in from paper originals. This worked well for text, but not maps (important for an inquiry about where the fire and the firefighters were). There was a paper colour map at the back of the room, but the electronic one used appeared to be a monochrome scan of an A4 page. The maps had been scanned at too low resolution, so they could not be digitally enlarged.

The process for calling up documents was cumbersome: the person asking the questions was working from paper notes and had to ask for a particular document to be displayed on screen. This involved reading out a long reference number to be transcribed by the operator at the front of the room. So there were delays in getting the right document up.

The adversarial nature of the inquiry process also resulted in the technology not being able to be used fully. The evidence had to wait for a verbal question and answer process. Legal objections result in a delay in the process while the possible consequences of a question yet to be asked might be. An online system could be used to greatly speed the inquiry by allowing much of the process to be carried out without the parties being physically present in one room or at the same time.

Where the hearing room is still used, the process might benefit from the use of an interactive electronic whiteboard. This could be used to display and directly interact with the evidence, particularly maps. Witnesses could point to locations on the map and where they were pointing electronically recorded. This would cut out the time wasting process of someone verbally describing a map location, them responding and then the questioner trying to interpret what they said verbally for the record.

UN Oil For Food Program Inquiry

The computerised hearing room used for the 2005 inquiry into the UN Oil For Food Program also provides some lessons. The inquiry used a similar hearing room arrangement to the ACT bushfire inquiry. There were approximately 20 desktop computers and laptops in the room. Two wall mounted projection screens (with projectors ceiling mounted) were used to display evidence to the observers.

The commissioner has three screens on his bench: one at the front and one on each side. This maked it convenient to see a screen, but resulted in the lawyers and observers in the body of the room being unable to see the commissioner much of the time. Similarly it must have been difficult for the commissioner to see the lawyers and observers. Screens placed lower could be used. Also Teleprompter screens, as used for speeches, may be useful in this application. These would have an LCD display flat on the desk, with a transparent screen reflecting the image to the user. The room would be able to see the commissioner through the screen.

The witness had a screen in front of them, overcoming the problem which the ACT Coroner's Bushfire Inquiry had where the witness had to turn away from the screen displaying the evidence in order to answer questions from the Coroner.

Exhibits from the inquiry are available in electronic format via the inquiry's web site. This included printed paper documents, handwritten notes and drawings which have been scanned, as well as email messages. Much of the inquiry depended on this information, with witnesses being asked "Did you read this email or not?" and "You were provided with the web address were you not?".

Each exhibit appears was in the form of a single PDF file. Documents scanned from paper have a barcode sticker on them with a reference number and a barcode. Email messages, such as EXH_0305 AWB.5020.0262 have a reference number in the header and footer. Some email messages have been scanned from paper, as indicated by the bit mapped text of hand written notations, binder holes and skewed text. However, most are from a digital source, as indicated by character encoding (rather than bit mapped image). The PDF document properties indicate that Acrobat Distiller (6.0.1) was used to create the email files.

The email documents are inefficiently encoded. As an example a 3kbyte email message is stored as a 12 kbyte PDF document, with most space taken up by embedded fonts. No embedded fonts should be needed, as the text of the email messages could be displayed using the inbuilt Courier font in PDF.

In some ways the storage of the email messages is too good. The PDF is hyperlinked with email addresses. Placing the cursor over an email address in a document and clicking will result in a mail message being created addressed to that person. This could cause inconvenience and embarrassment to both the sender and the recipient and would be better if this was disabled.

While digital copies of mail messages are provided, they appear to have been edited. Only the From, Sent, To and Subject header fields of the message are provided. Other fields normally included with a message, particularly Message-ID, References and Received, are not provided. These could be useful in checking the authenticity of the messages and how complete the set of messages is provided. As an example the Reference field could be used to help verify that one mail message is actually a reply to another.

The scanned documents are relatively efficiently encoded as black and white (two color) bitmaps at 300 DPI. However, some cases there are coloured covers on documents where text is barely discernible.

Volume of Evidence

One issue which should inquiry brings out is the volume of material which someone may receive in a working day and how much they can reasonably read. At such an inquiry a witness may be asked if they had read an email message addressed to them. Given the volume of messages someone would receive in a day, it would be reasonable to say that you were not sure you had read the whole of a message, if if the system indicated you had opened it. But this sounds evasive in a court-like setting. Perhaps future email systems will record what parts of a message the user accessed and how long for.

Role of ICT in Emergency Management

One topic for the inquiry will be how effectively was ICT used and could be used in the future. Of relevance may be:

1 comment:

informeduser said...

As a member of a team in the Inquiry and a person present in the room on a regular basis - this is not a correct abstract of the ICT setup or procedures of the hearing.

In deed, there was an electronic whiteboard and colour A0 Maps utilised by witnesses and counsel on a regular basis. Only maps of relevance where provided in colour A0 format to ensure no wastage of the tax payers monies in funding unnecessary file formats or technologies. There was also 2 hearing rooms, media/public gallery and the hearing room for the legal participants and members of the families and/or clients being represented by their legal counsel.