Integrating Hundreds of Applications

By Dennis McCafferty  |  Posted 09-20-2010

California Court System's Data Revamp

When it comes to enterprise demands in the California court system, the numbers are astonishing: The state's 58 superior courts--one for each county--process more than 9.5 million case filings each year through more than 500 court facilities. And, before an ongoing, ambitious IT consolidation effort took hold, each of these jurisdictions operated on one or more networks that were most often designed and launched entirely independently of the others.

This created bottlenecks in the pursuit of jurisprudence: If a driving-under-the-influence (DUI) defendant attended a preliminary hearing in San Francisco, for example, the judge might have had no idea that the same defendant was wanted for violating a restraining order in San Jose. The scales of justice were not always balanced either, because each county had to accommodate its court IT needs within its own budget.

"This meant that big urban areas like Los Angeles had well-funded courts, with more than enough judges to hear cases and robust technology to handle it all," says Mark Dusman, CIO of the state's Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). "But in rural counties with large geographic areas and very few taxpayers, it was a different story. They could not afford the same tech resources. As a result, you might have an entirely uneven level of experiences in dealing with the individual court systems."

Tasked with improving the administration of justice statewide, the AOC is working with courts, lawyer groups, law enforcement, social service agencies and others in state government to address this scenario. The multiphased network consolidation plan is a large factor in that success. An AOC veteran since 1996, Dusman recently spoke to CIO Insight's Dennis McCafferty to reveal in detail how the effort has taken shape and the impact it has made. In an edited version of that conversation, here is what Dusman had to say:

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Dispersed data systems that don't integrate well will cost your organization both money and time.
  • A pyramid structure that can be completed in stages is the key to bringing together disparate legacy information systems.
  • Infrastructure is the base of the pyramid, topped by a secure, scalable and effective platform upon which applications can be added as needed.
  • Virtualization, selective cloud computing and videoconferencing are all tools you can use to reduce costs.

CIO Insight: How did the network consolidation begin?

Mark Dusman: It started with the Trial Court Funding Act of 1997, which shifted the fiscal responsibility of the municipal courts from the counties to the state of California and to the Judicial Council, the governing body for the state court system. The AOC is the staff agency to the council. Before that, we provided support to these counties, but we didn't control the purse strings.

From an IT standpoint, the lack of consolidation created a technology Tower of Babel. Each of the county court systems had its own system. Each had its own network. Each had its own applications. Few of them talked to each other. Even within the same county, if it was large enough, you'd have separate systems. The ability to share information--which is critical for the delivery of justice--just wasn't there.

Why is this level of information sharing so critical?

Dusman: Our case-management systems became 800-pound gorillas because the data systems didn't integrate well. A death penalty case, for example, can go on for decades and compile a huge amount of information within a system. And multiple jurisdictions may have needed data to share when, for example, an appeal could come up.

If there were separate charges in different counties for the same person, the public defender representing that defendant in one county might need to get information from a sheriff in another jurisdiction who's in charge of bringing the prisoner to the courthouse. Too often, this didn't happen. The legacy systems did not support data exchanges in a timely fashion, whether we were dealing with district attorney offices, [the Department of Motor Vehicles], child support, welfare or any part of our court systems.

Making the Business Case

How did the differences in ability to pay for IT play out among the counties?

Dusman: In a rural area, even for a minor traffic ticket, you might have a much different experience than you would have in a large urban area. The rural population centers are so spread apart. You might have to drive 100 miles to the closest courthouse. Often, the paper citation that the police officer wrote wouldn't have been updated in the court system by the time you got there. So you'd be wasting a lot of time. Meanwhile, in a more urban area, the court system would already have that data in the system, and may have simply allowed you to pay your fine online or by phone without even going to a courtroom.

How were you able to convince state lawmakers that a major network consolidation was worthwhile?

Dusman: In California, the general process is that you have to articulate a solution, get it sized from a feasibility standpoint--and then you beg for the money. When we started in the late 1990s, the scope of the project seemed so huge. Keep in mind that this was a period when some counties didn't even have a PC on every desk.

We took six to eight months to come up with the needed plan. We described a pyramid structure that could be completed in stages. The base of the pyramid was the infrastructure. Then, we needed to build a secure, scalable and effective platform upon which we could add applications as the state needed them.

What was the first installation of this consolidation?

Dusman: We started with the financial needs of the court system. We wanted know exactly what kind of budget shape the individual jurisdictions were in without looking at 58 different spreadsheets on 58 different systems.

We began this in 2003 with a SAP installation called the Phoenix Finance Program. We also developed the Appellate Court Case Management System, a computerized facilities management system, and we are now developing a unified case management system for all trial court case types.

In terms of court infrastructure today, we're able to update the system with robust, modern technology, and we're in the middle of a major systemwide upgrade right now. We've also added--for many of the 58 jurisdictions--a second point of presence for the financial network, to provide redundancy in case of system failure.

Your implementation also involved a revamp of the telecommunications infrastructure. Which vendors did you bring in for that job?

Dusman: We first used SBC Global, which is now part of AT&T, and we also used Cisco, which provided the platform. SBC did most of the network implementation. Cisco provided the switches and routers. The initial cost was about $5 million.

Integrating Hundreds of Applications

How did you deal with the case-management systems problem?

Dusman: It's one we're still in the middle of implementing. We now have versions of the final product up and running for six court locations. This is the bread-and-butter of our consolidation efforts, because courts depend on this information minute-by-minute.

In the beginning of this decade, we visited each court jurisdiction and found literally hundreds of products being used for case management. We now have this number down to 70. When we started, many of these products were off-the-shelf, and that created many, many unneeded complications.

In what sense?

Dusman: The off-the-shelf products were customized for the courts of California but didn't integrate with each other, so they couldn't share information. As technology trends moved toward multitier and Web services models, these companies weren't able to provide that. This kept the courts from being able to publish case information online.

We also have 17 different types of cases: Civil, criminal, mental health, family law and probate are among them. But the off-the-shelf products weren't made to deal with all of those, so jurisdictions would have to buy multiple products to deal with case management. And if you had a small court system where it's just two judges and four clerks who do everything, you need to go from criminal law in the morning to family law in the afternoon.

So having more than one system for these separate areas could be a drain?

Dusman: Not only that, but whenever a court needed to change its fee, fine or bail schedule, the vendor would charge to make the needed changes in the product. And if that vendor had multiple court jurisdictions for the same product, each jurisdiction would get charged separately for the same change. It just didn't make sense economically to keep doing it piecemeal.

Along the way, the state has created what it calls the California Courts Technology Center (CCTC). What functions are performed there?

Dusman: It's our central base for infrastructure needs, so we have this network established in one place. You don't want 58 data centers in 58 counties. It's a major investment to get it running, so we're outsourcing the hosting and managed services here, currently to SAIC.

We don't own the equipment in there or the facility. SAIC manages and takes care of it. This is a shared data center, too: a tier-four, secure, modern facility. Sharing it allows us to afford that level of technology. We have financial applications there running on Unix, and our computer-aided facilities management programs run on Unix and Windows, as well as the interim case-management systems.

And virtualization is part of this?

Dusman: Yes. To keep costs as low as possible, we've taken advantage of virtualization, which saves us 30 percent on the capital cost of the server needs. Then there's the lower cost of energy usage.

You're moving into the cloud as well?

Dusman: To a certain extent. With our tech center, we are looking for centralized applications or services, and we will purchase those off the Internet. But it's not like what all the tech magazines are describing, with our people going online to some big online marketplace and shopping for whatever they want. This is more of a private cloud system, with only a certain number of products and services available for us to acquire off the Web.

You're also taking greater advantage of AT&T's video conferencing services. How has that helped?

Dusman: For a court system, it's a great tool and saves lots of money. As you know, California is in a bad situation financially, so we're constantly looking for ways to reduce costs. It used to be that we'd need to pay the sheriff to escort an inmate out of the jail to the courthouse when there was an appearance, and then the sheriff's department would have to provide security. It was a huge expense, even if the inmate might only need to see the judge for a couple of minutes. With video conferencing, the prisoner doesn't move from the jail. It's significantly cheaper [than the previous process].