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Twenty Years in Legal Informatics!

Today marks my twentieth year in the field of legal informatics. It was January 4th, 2002 that we officially started Xcential. The following week, Brad and I flew up to Sacramento to start our new project to replace California’s aging mainframe system with a modern XML-based drafting system. At the time, with a background in CAD automation, I was relying on what I remembered from high school civics class in high school as my understanding of the field. We’ve come a long way in those twenty years.

When we arrived in Sacramento, our charter was to work closely with the Legislative Data Center to produce a legislative drafting, amending, and publishing solution. The accompanying workflow system would be developed in-house and the database-oriented history system was to be developed by another vendor. There were a few constraints — the system had to be XML-based, the middle tier had to be Enterprise JavaBeans (EJB) and use WebLogic, and the database had to be Oracle. This last constraint had been decided somewhat mysteriously by upper management in the wake of 9/11 and left us scrambling to figure out how XML and an SQL-based relational database would work together. Fortunately, we learned that Oracle was developing XDB and they were open to using us as a guinea pig, for better or worse.

At the time we didn’t realize it, but we were the replacement for an unsuccessful attempt to build a drafting system using Microsoft Word. Somewhat strangely, while that project was wrapping up the same month we were starting, we never got any wind of that project’s existence and, to this day, I’ve never heard anyone ever mention anything about that project in Sacramento. The only hint we got was that we were expressly forbidden from suggesting Microsoft Word as the drafting tool. It was only when we came across the owner of the company that had performed that project at a conference and he bitterly suggested our project would meet the same fate as his, that we realized the project had existed at all. Thankfully, he was wrong and we deployed our solution in late 2004 for the 2005-2006 session. It’s been in use ever since.

So what has changed in the twenty years I’ve been in this field. Well, a lot has changed — and a lot has not. In my last two blogs I’ve discussed the DIKW pyramid and written about how it should be expected that migration through the layers can be expected to take between ten and twenty years.

When we started in 2002, the majority of jurisdictions were still mired in the tail end of the “data” era — having data entry to enter documents into mainframe systems. Other than that, there was little automation. A number of jurisdictions were starting to move forward into the “information” era. There were two distinctly different approaches being taken. Many jurisdiction, as California had done before us, were taking a half-step into the new era using office productivity tools. The reason I consider this a half-step is because, while clearly a more modern approach than data entry into a mainframe, the step did little to prepare for the steps to come — being able to add layers of automation to increase the speed, volume, and efficiency of processing legislation. This was the lesson California had learned with their earlier project, and others have learned since — that without a robust semantic information model, you just can’t build robust automation tools. Many jurisdictions did understand this and were working towards a full step using XML-based tools. Although XML tools at the time were decidedly first generation, the benefits that automation promised outweighed the risks of being an early adopter.

So where are we today? While twenty years ago, most jurisdictions were at the end of the “data” era and start of the “information” era, there has been considerable, if slow, progress. Today most jurisdictions are either somewhere between the midpoint of the “information” era (mostly the office productivity approach) and into the early stages of the “knowledge” era (with the XML approach). Many of the systems deployed in the mid-2000s are now starting to age out and jurisdictions are looking to replace them with systems that can meet the modern demands of the 2020s.

As for Xcential, over the last few years we’ve been progressing from a consulting company to a product company — where we rely on third-party integrators to do implementations. This way we can leverage our 20 years of experience far more effectively. We still do our own implementations, when it makes sense, but we now offer LegisPro as a product that can be implemented by one of our partner companies, by a local integrator, or even by a jurisdiction’s own internal development team. Xcential today is very different from what it was 20 years ago, and our growth over the past year or so has been amazing — and for me quite exhausting.

It will be interesting to see where we are in another twenty years — although I may have retired by then. (most people roll their eyes at this point suggesting they think I’ll never want to retire)

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