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Florida courts look to Semantic Web for disparate data on desperados

Systems that can retrieve snapshots from a photo database and display them on a notebook PC screen may seem almost trivial to an IT manager setting priorities for application development.

But to Judge Charles Francis, chief judge, second judicial court in Florida, it is serious business when it comes to criminal law.

"Here's something almost any judge would appreciate," Judge Francis tells eADT in explaining the importance of new semantic Web integration technology to the criminal justice system.

The judge was about to begin a trial when an attorney told him that one of the jurors was on probation, which disqualified him from serving on the jury. When Judge Francis questioned the juror, he claimed he was not the same person even though his name and age were the same. It took more than three hours contacting various offices in the Florida criminal justice system to find that the juror was lying. He really was on probation and thus not qualified to be on the jury.

The easiest way for the judge to clear up this identity case would have been to access the booking photo of the man on probation and compare it to the prospective juror standing in front of him. He estimates that if the court system had a network capable of searching, finding and retrieving booking or driver's license photos, the situation might have been resolved in 30 seconds.

The example Judge Francis is using is not unusual, he says. Judges frequently need to resolve issues of identity, especially when a criminal defendant is brought before the court. Lying being a common modus operandi of malefactors, they frequently claim to be someone else, preferably someone who is innocent.

"Photos are important," Judge Francis says. Also important are police reports, probation reports, child support documentation, driving records and other documentation the state maintains in various data files.

However, as is true of many organizations from multinational corporations to local school districts, data stored in computers is often in stovepipe systems that frustrate searches. Criminal courts, civil courts, police departments, probation departments, child and family welfare agencies, jails and prisons have different systems, developed at different times on different platforms.

Getting data from all those sources seems like a job for the Semantic Web, the latest invention of W3C founder and director Tim Berners-Lee. Semantic Web technology, including the W3C Resource Description Framework (RDF), ontology specifications and other XML-based standards is intended to allow searches of disparate data. So it should work in hunting down disparate data on desperados.

In Florida, Judge Francis has been working to find a way to make all criminal justice data sources searchable for judges, court clerks, district attorneys and others working in the justice system.

His efforts paid off late this summer when the Florida Supreme Court, Office of State Courts Administrator selected Semantic Web-based technology from Metatomix Inc. to provide search-and-retrieval capabilities that would speed up court proceedings. Plans call for a system that provides judges with real-time access from the bench to records that now cause hours and sometimes days of delays in court proceedings, Judge Francis says.

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