A huge IT project underpins the new legal inquiry into the deaths in Derry 29 years ago, writes Fiona Harvey
Investigating events that took place nearly 30 years ago is not a simple matter. People's memories change, documents are hard to collate and the accumulation of years of evidence must be sifted through. In the most prominent legal inquiry ever to be ordered by the UK Government, these arduous processes of investigation have been assisted by modern information technology.
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Headed by Lord Saville, the new inquiry into the Bloody Sunday incident in which 14 civil rights marchers were shot and killed by the British Army in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1972 was ordered by Tony Blair in 1998 as part of the ongoing Northern Ireland peace process.
Operations began in earnest in 1999 and last year, after a long build-up, hearings finally started. The inquiry is now hearing statements from civilians who witnessed the shootings and is expected to continue for at least another year. From the outset, the inquiry employed innovative technological methods.
Deloitte & Touche was commissioned by the Government to manage the IT project. After inviting tenders and proposals from an unspecified number of IT suppliers, Deloitte & Touche awarded the contract to ICL. To the end of December, the inquiry had cost £33.8m, of which £8.2m went on IT.
The first problem for ICL was to deal with the sheer volume of evidence that had been amassed by the legal teams. There were more than 100,000 documents to deal with, filling more than 60 CD-Roms. These were collated into a document management system that ran to 90Gbytes of data, held on two Compaq servers, one in operation and the other on hot stand-by in case of failure.
Back-up was essential to preserve accurate records of the full proceedings of the trial, explained Alan Thompson, project leader at ICL. The servers are kept in a specially adapted room in Derry's Guildhall, where the inquiry is being held.
The system uses Trial Pro software from Oyez, a London-based company specialising in legal technology. This software controls the indexing and enables fast searches on the text.
A search for key words among 10,000 of the documents takes 4.5 seconds on the system, whereas a manual search by five paralegal workers for the same words in the same number of documents has been found to take about 67 hours.
Such a saving on lawyers' time - and thus on cost to the inquiry - was one of the key reasons behind the heavy investment in computer systems.
When a document is referred to in the course of the inquiry, one of the two computer operators in the courtroom can search for the relevant piece and have it displayed to the court on 35 plasma screens. The information is also relayed, via a wide area network, to Derry's nearby Rialto theatre, which is being used as an overflow space for the public galleries, and to London for civil servants there.
When a document is deemed by Saville to be too sensitive for public display, he can stop it from being shown on the screens using special software created by ICL and stored on his laptop.
A pair of stenographers are also constantly transcribing the proceedings of the trial on laptops, using Live Note software from Smith Bernal, a specialist legal software house based in London.
This live transcript of the trial can also be shown on the network of plasma screens. Using the software, Saville can make notes on his laptop about the proceedings, appending them to the transcript as it is typed.
The transcript is edited for errors each evening by 6pm and published on the inquiry's Web site. A version is also e-mailed to Saville at his hotel, where he can upload the information together with his notes attached electronically to the relevant parts of the text.
Another set of screens accompanying the displays of the documents shows closed-circuit television pictures taken from eight cameras situated around the courtroom. These are voice-activated to zoom in on whoever is speaking at any time.
The CCTV and document displays were stipulated to ensure that proceedings were open and transparent, particularly for the sake of the families of the deceased, said Thompson.
Saville has also praised the system for the openness it allows, its efficiency in saving time and money and for improving the processes and administration of justice. "We have used IT to the greatest extent possible and in my view to remarkable effect," he said in his opening statement to the tribunal.
Perhaps the most striking use of IT in the inquiry is the virtual reality system that has been used to recreate the Bogside area, where the killings took place.
This system was created by the Northern Ireland Centre for Learning Resources, part of Queens University in Belfast. It used old maps, photographs and film footage from both 1972 and the present day, aggregated in a visual format using Apple's Quicktime software.
The virtual reality system allows witnesses to walk about in a three-dimensional, 360¡ recreation of the area displayed on a network of screens in the courtroom.
Another recreation shows the same streets as they appear today, so that witnesses can orientate themselves in the present and the past before giving evidence. When they do give evidence, they can point to things with a stylus on the touch-sensitive screens to trace their movements and toggle between present and past maps as necessary.
This system has been found to be highly effective in helping to jog people's memories about the events of 30 years ago. "It makes it much more real for people and lets them orientate themselves and recreate in their minds exactly what they saw in a way that would not be possible otherwise," said Thompson.
The contrast with older methods of helping witnesses reconstruct incidents in court could hardly be greater. The Widgery tribunal, the first and widely criticised inquiry into Bloody Sunday, that took place 11 weeks after the killings, used a cardboard cut-out model of Bogside on which witnesses could point out events.
Despite its technological complexity, the modern system has proved surprisingly easy for witnesses to use. Each witness receives about 30 minutes' training on a standalone version of the software to enable them to get used to the system before giving evidence.
Neil McKeown, IT project leader at Deloitte & Touche, said, "There have been no problems with using the system. People have picked it up extremely easily and extremely fast - especially considering that many of the witnesses are older people who may not have been too familiar with high technology."
Saville's praise for the IT systems employed in the Bloody Sunday inquiry is likely to have an effect on future public inquiries and greatly encourage the use of similar technology in other legal situations. While the investment in the IT infrastructure has been high, participants believe that by the end of the proceedings significant cost savings will have been made.