Courts in the United States are not just about high profile litigation and murder cases. Most of the grunt work of the U.S. legal system is done in district courts and chances are you have probably been there contesting speeding tickets or for some other menial rite of legal malaise. Yet, what you do not know about the legal process could hurt you the day you show up and are not prepared.
OpenCourt is a project by WBUR, the Boston University affiliate of National Public Radio, funded by the Knight Foundation to increase knowledge and interaction of the legal process by placing a streaming cameras in courtrooms. A couple of MacBooks Pros, a Canon HD camcorder and Livestream and you have your very own reality television.
This may sound fairly simple. Put a camera in a courtroom, press play and stream it to the Web. Technically speaking, it is not that much more than that. But there is a lot more to it than just having producing a live stream. The rules of engagement in courts are never straightforward. Local courts around the country tend not to have big signs around the room saying "you cannot tweet, stream live video or chew gum." Video is allowed (but can be limited by judges) in Massachusetts' courts, where the OpenCourt pilot program is taking place in Quincy District Court. That is not always the case around the country but the founders of OpenCourt hope to make the process more commonly accepted.
"It's a pilot," said John Davidow to Justin Ellis of the Nieman Journalism Lab. "It's now a reality and off the white board. More and more issues will come forward."
It is more than the equivalent of traffic camera in a courtroom though. Judges have access to the stream from their benches and certain topics, like restraining orders, will not be lived streamed.
The use case is straightforward. Educate the community in the court process, keep people informed of what is happening in their area, increase awareness of how courts work and provide an open and transparent look into the machinations of an important government entity.
It could also be used as a tool for journalists. It was designed by journalists (WBUR is associated with the College of Communications at BU) and the Knight Foundation is a non-profit group with the aim of advancing journalism in the digital era. Live streaming cameras in local courtrooms can help newsrooms stretched thin of reporters. For instance, the Quincy Patriot-Ledger embedded an OpenCourt stream in an article the day after the service launched.
"I'd argue that nothing compares to actually being there and seeing with your own eyes," Davidow said to Ellis. "At the same time, maybe some news organizations would find efficiency in that setup."