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Court software so fast on facts, it’s practically criminal

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Journalists are turning to AI software to fast-track story leads

Getting court case details for a breaking news story on anything from celebrity crime to corporate fraud is a time consuming and onerous process. But any investigative journalist hoping to land a cover story will admit that the digging is often worth it. But thanks to a journalist-cum-entrepreneur duo, journalists will have the opportunity to search the juicy case details in a fraction of the time via a new magistrate’s court case filing database set to be tested by a select group of journalists and larger publishing organisations next month.

Ball now in journalist’s court

Court case files are a treasure trove for journalists and researchers providing “everything and anything you could imagine from all walks of life and backgrounds,” Richard Gurner, Editor and Publisher of South Wales independent newspaper, Caerphilly Observer, tells The Freelance Informer.

“Anyone alleged to have committed a crime, whether a politician, someone shoplifting £30 worth in cheese, to a CEO, or a celebrity, will be documented in the magistrates’ court, where everything begins,” says Gurner.

The editor is also one of the people behind Caerphilly Media and the soon-to-be-launched, database, The Court List. Alongside software developer, Levi Harris-Browning, the duo aims to make it easy for journalists to look up case details by building a live, searchable, database of cases from magistrates’ courts throughout England and Wales.

Under the current search capabilities, “stories of high public interest importance can also often be missed,” Gurner explains.

What has long accumulated to hours of reading through court document pdfs, sometimes hundreds of pages long, could now become available in moments thanks to the database prototype being developed.

“As a working journalist I have found the current system of getting court case details problematic and time-consuming. Checking the details of a defendant can often take minutes, rather than seconds – add that up over the course of a year and hours and days are wasted wading through court documents.”

Richard Gurner, Editor and Publisher, Caerphilly Observer

For example, currently digging for the correct pdf from the case listings, then locating details of a defendant can prove difficult, especially if a surname is misspelled. Gurner says by creating a database with other search parameters, such as the name of the road that a crime may have been committed, could another way to find the correct case filing if details of a defendant were not immediately available. Effectively the prototype database will extract data and then structure it in a much more user-friendly way.

While still in development, several different features will be added, such as an option for reporters to keep tabs on cases they are interested in, such as alerts and diary functions, as well as the ability to learn the type of stories that could be of interest to journalists and the wider public.

Initial development on the project started in April 2018 following a successful funding bid from Google’s DNI fund. The publishers of the Caerphilly Observer have also landed funding from Clwstwr – an ambitious five-year programme to create new products, services, and experiences for the screen industries based in Wales.

Other Clwstwr-funded technologies targeting the publishing industry include Cardiff-based AMPLYFI. The artificial intelligence software start-up is using AI to speed up the time it takes journalists to find reliable and relevant facts and sources. 

Clwster Professor Justin Lewis describes investigative journalism as trying to get to the “genealogy of a story” by peeling back layers to get to the source, quickly finding connections between people involved in the story.

“It’s an arduous manual task with lots of rabbit holes to fall down,” says Lewis. “An AI system could rinse huge documents, such as those produced in the Panama Papers scandal, through a specialised programme, and, within minutes, come up with all the key names, key players and their connections,” he says.

AMPLYFI claims that its technology could do what takes an investigative journalist hours in just one search. The objective is to be a more useful search engine for journalists. Whether the breaking news is a person, a topic, a theme, or a country, you’d simply type in a search query and watch as it retrieves all of the relevant sources to build a diagram of connections around that topic. I would be done at “lightning speed”, the company claims, by “trawling court records, land registry and all manner of resources that take ages to go through manually”.

To learn more about AMPLYFI’s story from the company’s Chief operating officer, Rony Seamons, check out this video.

And as for Caerphilly Media, Gurner says that they are looking for media groups to partner with for testing and to refine what should be a “revolutionary tool” for journalists

To help develop its future direction, The Court List wants to hear from journalists and is conducting research into their needs. Click here to take part.

If you are a publisher interested in helping test The Court List, email richard@caerphilly.observer

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