Know your Users, Match their Needs!

Posted by Rebecca Schild at Nov 23, 2011 01:25 AM |
As Free Access to Law initiatives in the Global South enter into a new stage of maturity, they must be certain not to lose sight of their users’ needs. The following post gives a summary of the “Good Practices Handbook”, a research output of the collaborative project Free Access to Law — Is it Here to Stay? undertaken by LexUM (Canada) and the South African Legal Institute in partnership with the Centre for Internet and Society.

Almost ten years have passed since the Montreal Declaration on Free Access to Law (FAL) was signed by eight legal information institutes and other FAL initiatives. Today, the Free Access to Law Movement (FALM) is growing with over 30 initiatives having signed onto the Declaration and providing free, online access to legal information. While the movement continues to gain momentum, the big question no longer remains why we need free access to law, but instead how FAL initiatives can continue to do so sustainably in the long-term. The principles of access and justice underpinning the FALM have been well-argued and few would dispute the notion that citizens ought to have access to the laws under which they are governed. As the Montreal Declaration states: "Public legal information from all countries and international institutions is part of the common heritage of humanity…Maximizing access to his information promotes justice and the rule of law" (2002).

Regardless of legal system or political context, the importance of securing free online access to the law has been recognized from a variety of perspectives. Whether FAL is considered a critical democratic function or simply an essential efficiency within any legal system, it is difficult to contest that the internet has increased the accessibility of and ease with which legal information is being published and shared online. Setting the ideological and practical foundations of the movement aside, effectively demonstrating the impact of FAL initiatives and to secure their sustainability in the long-term remains the next big challenge for the FALM. Today, there is a growing necessity for grounded and realistic indicators that can validate some of the long-held assumptions around the impacts and outcomes of FAL initiatives. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, there is also a need for a more nuanced understanding of the factors that influence the sustainability of FAL initiatives— particularly in resource-scarce and often nebulous legal systems of the Global South.

This blog post provides some insight into the questions above through a brief summary of the results of the study Free Access to Law—Is it Here to Stay? This global comparative study was carried out by LexUM (Canada) and the South African Legal Institute in partnership with the Centre for Internet and Society. The project set out to begin providing answers to some of these critical questions around the impacts and sustainability of the FALM. It was initially hypothesized in the study that the sustainability of a FAL initiative rests upon a particular string of contingent factors. To begin, a particular condition would incentivize the creation of the FAL initiative — more often than not meeting the unmet needs of those requiring access to legal information.  Next, if the FAL initiative is able to provide the service within a favourable context, it was suspected that it would produce favourable outcomes for both users and society at large. In turn, if the FAL initiative was able to provide benefits to users, it was theorized that these benefits would then stimulate reinvestment into the FAL initiative — forming a positive and sustainable feedback loop. 

As the Good Practices Handbook highlights, the research hypothesis provided an accurate reading of what the sustainability chain of a FAL initiative might look like in practice. If unable to keep up with the evolving information requirements of their users, this study suggests that FAL initiatives run the risk of FAL becoming outdated and even outperformed by either government-based or private sector initiatives.  This is why FAL initiatives must continue to be innovative and find new ways to meet users’ needs. Approaches take my include keeping their collections up to date, fine-tuning their services or even reinventing themselves through the provision of value-added services. Gathered from the experiences of the eleven countries across Africa and Asia examined in this study, the following is a brief summary of the nine “Good Practices” that emerging FAL initiatives can consider:

  1. The FAL initiative should establish clear objectives: Before doing anything, the FAL initiative should decide what exactly it’s setting out to do…critical components such as content selection, targeted audience, expected reach, search functionalities and other website features help determine priorities and evaluate capacity to achieve these objectives.
  2. How to be small and do big things: Most of the FAL initiatives studied as part of this project were formed of small teams (often less than five individuals). Initially, this may appear to pose a risk for sustainability. However, we saw a number of ways in which small teams have proven to be innovative, flexible, and able to thrive in environments of scarcity. However, as much as small teams can be seen as a source of innovation, they may also pose a risk in the medium to long-term. 
  3. FAL initiatives require expertise in both IT and legal information: Legal information management experts understand how the law is applied, how different texts and parts of texts speak to one another, and how these documents are used. IT experts can imagine a variety of ways to address these needs. If both forms of expertise is not available within the team of a FAL initiative, institutional partnerships provide promising sites for collaborative support. For example, the FALM constitutes a rich source of expertise and has proven to be a site of collaboration between established and emerging FAL initiatives. Further, universities have proven to be a significant source of human and financial resources for several FAL initiatives.
  4. FAL initiatives should look to where they are headed (but not too far ahead): Because the purpose of a FAL initiative is to provide free online access to the law, it must secure access to this data for regular publication. How will legal information be received and organized by the initiative? In what format will it be published in? Early on, FAL initiatives need to develop both internal and external workflow processes to ensure that the initiative is able to provide regular access to updated information. Furthermore, an important finding of the study suggests that context plays a much larger role in a project’s sustainability. Consideration should be given to a country’s ICT infrastructure, the transparency of a government and their access to information regimes, and the nature of the legal information market when designing the workflows of an FAL initiative.
  5. FAL initiatives should work with the ICT infrastructure in place: The quality and consistency of internet access varies across countries in the Global South. FAL initiatives should remain aware of how stakeholders and users are accessing the internet and develop their service accordingly. Considering the often intermittent nature of internet connectivity in the Global South, providing users with offline access to databases is a practical alternative.
  6. FAL initiatives should use Free and Open Source Software: FAL initiatives should maximise their use of FLOSS. All FAL initiatives use FLOSS to some extent and without these flexible and cost-effective alternatives, it would be safe to infer that the FALM would have grown as quickly as it has.
  7. FAL initiatives should be sensitive to culture: FAL initiatives rely on stakeholders and communities of users. Staying mindful of the professional and organizational cultures within a country may provide the initiative with a source of community support which may become a sustainability strategy.  Further, integrated or parallel social networking platforms can play an essential role in community-building around the FAL initiatives and can also serve as another source of content in resource-scarce environments.
  8. Find your users, match their needs: Project goals and appropriate strategies should be based on an in-depth understanding of the needs of those using the FAL initiative. As the sustainability chain suggests, when FAL initiatives produce positive outputs and outcomes, stakeholders will reinvest in the initiative to ensure its sustainability. If a user’s needs are effectively met by an FAL initiative, this group can provide either the resources or impetus for its continued success. Identifying who your users are and staying aware of their needs is a good way to secure reinvestment into the project.
  9. FAL initiatives should diversify funding sources: This may be easier said than done — reinvestment can be the most challenging aspect of sustaining a FAL initiative. Early on, initiatives that receive donor-based funding benefit substantially upon investment. However, these initiatives are put at significant risk once initial seed funding has been depleted. Similarly, FAL initiatives that partnerships with other during their start up phase face similar fates as securing long-term service delivery can become a challenge. Possible funding sources included throughout the study include, among others: government, international development agencies or NGOs, the judiciary, law societies and the sale of value-added services.

 

In addition to these good practices, this study has emphasized the role the that the FALM has played in helping redefine online legal information as a public good. Each of the case studies demonstrates in a unique way the value openness plays in a legal information ecosystem, and how a robust digital legal information commons can be of benefit to users. Traditionally, the legal information market has been dominated by a select number of commercial players. In response, the FALM has created an important transnational space within which conversations around the provision of and access to legal information as a political right rather than a commodity to be bought and sold can take place. Encouragingly, governments in the Global South are catching and FAL initiatives from the South have proven to be immense sources of innovation in their own right. In Indonesia, for example, FAL initiatives have laid the groundwork for emerging government initiatives that are now  prioritizing the provision of free, online access to legal and other government information. Today, I believe that we are witnessing an important paradigm shift as governments are beginning to recognize that “access” to legal information is a right to be held by the public.

Despite such headway, it is needless to say that FAL initiatives in the Global South continue to face immense sustainability challenges. However, it is hoped that this study can provide some practical insights for emerging initiatives and partnerships. However, as more FAL initiatives begin entering into the next stage of maturity and growth, it is more important than ever that they are able to adapt to adverse environmental changes and form long-lasting partnerships with information sources within government. Most importantly, FAL initiatives must remain dynamic and responsive to users’ needs. To do so, they must be able to tailor and expand their services, offerings and user-base. To secure their sustainability and relevance in the long term, they must also be continuously strengthening their ties and maintain open communication flows with users.  If FAL initiatives are able to successfully make the transition from being supply side initiatives to becoming demand driven services, the FALM will be well-positioned for another decade of sustainable growth. 

Download the collection below:

Good Practices Handbook (426 kb)
Environmental Scan Report (860 kb)
Local Researcher's Methodology Guide (1225 kb)

The full collection of case studies and the Good Practices Handbook was originally published on the Project Website. The Centre for Internet and Society oversaw the following case studies: India, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Philippines.

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