[LINK] IT at the ACT Coroner’s Bushfire Inquiry

Tom Worthington Tom.Worthington at tomw.net.au
Fri Oct 15 09:11:24 EST 2004

Last week I attended one hour of the ACT Coroner's Bushfire Inquiry. This 
was conducted into "... the cause, origin and circumstances of the fires 
which destroyed and damaged property in January, 2003 and Inquests into the 
deaths associated with those fires." 

As a citizen of Canberra who was injured as a result of the fires, and had 
a former colleague die during the fires, I thought I would go along and see 
how the inquiry was being conducted. The inquiry was held at the new and 
hi-tech ACT Magistrates court building 

The inquiry was open to the public and anyone could simply walk in and sit 
down. The difficult part was to find out when the hearings were on, as this 
was not made clear on the inquiry web site (I turned up once when it wasn't 

The first impression was of the hi-tech nature of the room for the inquiry. 
About fifteen large LCD screens (17 inch?) were been placed 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 

It appeared that while most screens were displaying the same evidence, 
individuals could use the web browser to view other documents. I saw one 
person do a web search engine to find a report.

There was a plasma screen on one wall to display the same electronic 
documents as on the LCD screens. There was also a video monitor showing 
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.

All of this hi-tech was not without problems. The room looks cluttered due 
to the large LCD screens on desks. The plasma screen is not readable from 
the back of the room. The equipment must has saved a lot of court time and 
piles of paper, but some more design effort may have saved more.

There were microphones at each position. However, the witness reported 
having difficulty hearing what was being asked (I had trouble as well). 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 color map at the back of the 
room, but the electronic one used appeared to be a monochrome scan of an A4 
page. I saw one of the legal team try enlarge it, but it broke up into 
unreadable pixels.

CSIRO's Sentinel Fire Mapping System has a very clear digital map, which 
tracked the fires via satellite 
<http://www.tomw.net.au/2004/enetp.html#sentinel>. It is surprising that 
this, or a similar system, was not used for display in the inquiry.

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. There were delays in getting the right document up.

However, the major frustration was not the way the technology was used but 
the adversarial nature of the process. This results in convoluted questions 
and confusing objections to the questions. At one stage a lawyer objected 
to a question being asked, not because of anything in the question, but 
because of what they thought the next question to be asked might be.

This does not seem to be an efficient way to work out a complicated 
sequence of events spread over space and time. Perhaps there should be 
someone with an electronic white board drawing a topic map 
<http://www.topicmaps.org/xtm/index.html#concepts> of the evidence, with 
areas of agreement and dispute identified. However, that is a criticism of 
the legal process, not of the people required to work within its confines. 
While the process could be more efficient, it does appear to have been 
carefully carried out.

ps: We happen to have an experts in Topic Maps in Canberra at the NLA 

Tom Worthington FACS     tom.worthington at tomw.net.au  Ph: 0419 496150
Director, Tomw Communications Pty Ltd             ABN: 17 088 714 309
http://www.tomw.net.au            PO Box 13, Belconnen ACT 2617
Visiting Fellow, Computer Science,  Australian National University
Publications Director,  Australian Computer Society  

More information about the Link mailing list