Simplifying Search and Storage in the Age of Information

By John Hunter

Data and document management is an issue that all enterprises have to resolve. For certain organizations that have large legacy documents store, however, doing so becomes a near-unwieldy task all unto itself. There are various organizations, particularly those in government, legal and professional services, and large enterprises, that have to find solutions to host, organize and manage decades’ worth of documents, ranging from commercial agreements, proposals, contracts, financial documentation, press releases, case studies and collateral, to information governed by disclosure and transparency legislation and mandates. And because many organizations that manage such a large amount of information usually do so for the sole benefit of others being able to retrieve it, they devote significant man hours to digitizing it and sharing it in an optimized and consumable format. This further complicates the task at hand, for effective document storage technologies are rarely the same as effective document retrieval technologies.

Recently faced with a daunting document management challenge like this, we at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) are in the process of making it easier to search for and access the 90,000-plus documents hosted on our public-facing HUDOC database. Our website gets nearly five million visits each year from legal professionals, global news organizations, and the general public who search for information around our latest and historic rulings. In fact, after a ruling it’s typical for more than 5,000 individuals to try to access the newly-published legal documents on our site at the same time. 

The original back-end architecture on our site was not built to handle such heavy traffic and the resulting document searches. After an 18-month proof of concept and review of available solutions, we ultimately decided to implement Microsoft SharePoint into our Hummingbird DMS for document repository, and FAST for search. But of course, even the best Enterprise Content Management (ECM) technology means nothing without an easy-to-use interface and the FAST solution out of the box did not provide a satisfactory user interface. To remedy this, we turned to SkyDox, a cloud-enabled collaboration platform that integrates with Microsoft ECM and search products. We are leveraging SkyDox’s expertise in building an intuitive search interface on top of SharePoint and FAST to provide a document–sharing and dissemination channel, which will be available via our website.

With so much data to deal with, we didn’t want to overwhelm visitors. After all, sifting through 90,000 documents (that is growing daily) can be a tedious chore, even with a user-friendly interface. Taking this into account, we worked with SkyDox to harness a refined search functionality that they had developed as part of their cloud document sharing and collaboration application. This empowers users to easily find what they’re looking for, regardless of their previous research experience. On top of that, we’ve built in automated document meta data tagging system so search becomes infinitely easier and relevant for users. Currently, we’re building in capabilities for our visitors to further refine their searches by name, region, or specific legal terms via our case-law thesaurus. In addition, our platform will alert users when new related documents are available via RSS feeds. What’s more, viewers will be able to go straight to the portion of the document with these key words, rather than wading through, often hundreds, of pages in one ruling.

The new platform will be a replacement for an existing search engine used to distribute final judgments published by the ECHR. The ECHR is required under the Convention (Article 44 § 3) to make these judgments public. These rulings affect more than 800 million inhabitants in 47 member states – so it’s crucial that visitors can easily access and search our documents. And because the ECHR’s rulings are based on precedent, our legal documents have a major influence on future applications people choose to, or not to, bring to the ECHR for judgment – making it crucial that our information is available to all interested parties, at the same time. This means making our documents equally accessible for everyone who searches through our document repository, whether it be a journalist, a legal professional, or a member of the public -- no matter how experienced (or not) they are with search platforms. The ethos of providing a level playing field runs contrary to platforms that are developed specifically to sit on top of our database, where only those who can afford access are able to retrieve court rulings often before organizations or individuals without additional resources. Allowing visitors to find documents quickly and easily will also enable legal professionals to conduct more thorough research into precedents prior to deciding whether to bring a case forward. Ultimately, 90 percent of cases sent to the Court are declared inadmissible and by providing a comprehensive easily searchable European Court of Human Rights legal database will hopefully help stem the flow of applications.

Even outside the business of managing upwards of thousands of legal documents, making information easily accessible and searchable is paramount for all enterprises. A recent study found that 87 percent of federal employees spend time each day searching internal databases for information. This is also reflected in enterprise environments, especially as more employees need to access information from locations outside of the office. In fact, according to Forrester, 62 percent of workers spend time working at a location other than the office. So those that do not employ effective file sharing and knowledge management capabilities due to a lack of proper search functions almost always run the risk of decreased employee productivity. In addition, if an organization’s documents are not easily accessible on their website, then often times they simply cannot fulfill their obligations to consumers, clients, investors, or other stakeholders.
From our reorganization efforts, we are expecting to see a 30 percent increase in site visitors. Also, for the first time, we have chosen to allow all of the documents in our repository to be indexed on major search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing -- so anyone searching for a specific case or area of law will be able to access the document via a Web browser. This eliminates the need to upload the documents on multiple databases, recreating the content to effectively share the information. 

As demand in the ECHR’s rulings have grown, it has become essential to ensure that searching for them be simple for everyone, at all levels. In some ways, we’ve achieved a formidable task – implementing a system where the search capabilities are easy to use and our legacy data remains in place.

After all, what’s the use of technology, if using it causes more problems than it solves? 

John Hunter is head of IT for the ECHR.

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