[LINK] IT at the ACT Coroners Bushfire Inquiry
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
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
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
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