Case study: How IT tracks winebox evidence

Most participants in the 'winebox' Commission of Inquiry are probably not enjoying the profile it is giving them but one Auckland company is enjoying the image boost.

The Serious Fraud Office is listed in the Auckland phone book right beneath a company called Serious Computer Solutions, and that's what it has taken to get the so-called "winebox inquiry" up and running.

The technology you see on those oddly vertical monitors flickering on the TV news wasn't provided by the computer company nearest the Serious Fraud Office in the phone book, however. The Commission of Inquiry looked a bit further afield and picked Imaging Solutions of Newmarket, Auckland.

The choice has proved popular with the commission staff , who say the setup, by system managing director Grant Sewell and programmer Chris Sedcole, has worked well and saved a lot ot time.

"The system has been great," says commission office manager Susan Evans. "With paper documents it would take five to six minutes for each to be found and for everybody to get to it, but with this system it takes a split second to find the page and for everyone to see at it."

Proof of the system's efficiency was provided by one counsel who, refusing to use the technology, instead wheeled two suitcases of documents into the inquiry on a trolley.

Evans says Imaging Solutions got the inquiry job because it committed to providing a document management system with 24-hour support, within the commission's limited budget.

The system works on about 20 networked PCs which access 600Mb of files consisting of 15,000 scanned documents. In case of power or hardware failure, the system has a UPS and is backed up to both tape and CD.

The inquiry stenographer's shorthand machine is linked to a PC which decodes her notations into standard English in real-time, using a program called CaseView, from Melbourne company Court Recording Services. The commissioner and counsel can follow the record of proceedings on individual PCs, as does a second stenographer who checks it for accuracy and translates any abbreviations.

The transcript is also transmitted in real-time via dial-up lines to the IRD office in Wellington, the BNZ and other authorised parties with an interest in the case.

Management of the estimated 15,000 documents is done by a system developed by Imaging Solutions called CourtView.

Modelled on the Eastlight folders used for filing paper documents, the software's interface has a few large icons as a menu at the top and when the desired document number is typed in from a master list, the scanned image of the document comes up on screen. By clicking on a mail icon, whoever is asking questions of the witness can send it immediately to the PC on the witness stand. If a lawyer or the judge is looking at different documents to the one being discussed in court they can quickly find where everyone else is up to by clicking on an icon which is highlighted orange--the current document icon.

Documents are displayed on 20in Philips monitors that have been configured in portrait mode.

Grant Sewell says there are no special drivers or secret software tricks to the way the documents are displayed in A4 on the screens.

"At the start, in October 1994, we had the screens as normal but we realised looking at the scanned documents that way meant you had to scroll up and down. In those days you couldn't get hold of A4 monitors unless you went overseas and spent a lot of money, and we were on a tight budget."

So they turned the monitors on their sides and rotated the document images within the software. The Windows 3.11 menu bar can still to be seen down the left side of the screen, requiring a tilt of the head to be read. However, the Microsoft mouse driver was modified to reorientate them to point the right way on the sideways screen.

"It was a business issue, not a technical one. We haven't had to invent something new and it saved us renting or buying some obscure kind of monitors which would be hard to use for anything else," Sewell says.

Many of the documents were in bad condition and did not show up well on the VGA screens, so Chris Sedcole, who is the on-call support for the system, has had to realign and clean up many of them after scanning.

"We also introduced anti-aliasing to the system which circumvents poor resolution by putting in more dots to darken the text. It also meant counsel could see the documents on laptops which was a major breakthrough."

Sedcole says he worked day and night for about a week to get the system running, but since then has had very few problems to contend with.

"Winston Peters sat a folder on top of the keyboard on the witness stand, causing the computer to beep continuously and making everyone peer about for the source of the noise, but no, apart from people unplugging other PCs to plug their laptops in, and someone unplugging the server one time, it's all kind of bullet-proof."

Sewell says being associated with the inquiry has only been good for document imaging in general and Imaging Solutions in particular.

"Certainly it's been worth a lot of promotion of imaging as a technology and the fact they're still using the system means it's had a tangible benefit for them."

Sewell says CourtViewer has been supplied to Australia but there are no plans to take it further afield as yet because there is still a lot of potential to be tapped in New Zealand. Already the company has been involved with supplying document imaging to the Equitycorp civil trial and to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries for a paua smuggling trial. So what next for the company?

"The next software version will have a built-in 3D ability to fly over the Cook Islands," laughs Sedcole.

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