In 1959, the Council of Europe set up the European Court of Human Rights. The court hears cases against any of the 49 member states of the council that have been accused of violating its Convention on Human Rights.
The court makes 60 years’ worth of court rulings, comprising 90,000 documents, available online. These are of primary interest to human rights lawyers looking up legal precedents, but the Court’s Hudoc website – where the rulings are published – is also used by human rights activists, NGOs, journalists and foreign governments and the site attracts nearly 5 million visitors each year.
Until June this year, however, the search engine that supported the Hudocs site was functionally limited, especially in comparison to contemporary consumer websites.
"The search engine presented results as a flat list of documents," explains John Hunter, head of IT at the ECHR. "If you were only interested in cases that involved a particular country in a specific time span, you could do the search and it present the relevant results, but it wasn’t intuitive enough for you to drill down and find what you wanted."
In 2010, the court decided that it needed to upgrade the site to make it more usable, more accessible and more powerful. It contacted the top 10 search engine providers, gave them access to a virtual server allowing them to index its database of documents, and asked them to show it what their technology could do.
However, there then followed a period of rampant consolidation in the search engine technology market. Norwegian search provider FAST was acquired by Microsoft, for example, and iManage was acquired by Autonomy.
These acquisitions meant the court had a lot of questions for its potential suppliers. "What is the future of a company that is bought by somebody else? Is it bought as strategic tool or is it bought just for consolidation? What is their five-year plan?"
Hunter decided to hold off for six months, by which time the likes of Microsoft and Autonomy could provide more detailed answers to these questions.
The court eventually selected FAST, "because it was the best fit for our organisation," Hunter explains. "The licensing model was very clear and simple to understand; they had a good future roadmap; and unlike some of the competitors, FAST’s technology was relatively open.
"With some of the systems we looked at, if we had wanted to get into technical detail we would have had to call the supplier and pay for a consultant. With Microsoft technology, if you have a problem you can Google it and you’ll generally find an answer."
To develop the new system, the court issued an international tender, which was won by cloud document storage and document management consulting provider SkyDox. "We could see from their answers and the way they’d thought [the tender] through that they really had a good grasp of what they were talking about."
Combined with the speed of the FAST technology, says Hunter, this has lead to a highly responsive experience for the users. "I’ve showed it to one IT director I know, who said ‘my God, I can’t believe the speed of this thing’."
Speaking to Information Age days after the launch of the new site, Hunter said that the feedback from member states had all been positive. “We certainly haven’t had anyone screaming down the phone at us.”