Internet Newsletter for Lawyers
January/February 2004, by Delia Venables

Gathering together a law firm's know-how the Open Source way

What is Wiki? (part 1)
by Paul Robertson

Electronic databases remove the burden of collating cases and statutes. Online commentaries provide up to the minute digests of the state of the law, but where can law firms keep all the know-how generated within a firm?

In part 1 of this article, I describe the investigations leading to the decision to adopt 'open-source' software for the firm, whilst in part 2 (to appear in the next issue) I will document the progress made in setting up the software within the firm.

Lawyers are Spoilt

Lawyers are spoilt when it comes to electronic databases. Publishers vie with each other to provide ever more comprehensive collections of cases and statutes. Works such as Butterworths Laws of New Zealand provide authorative, pithy summaries of what the law is on particular subjects.

But databases and books don't have all the answers, and aren't always the first place people look. Law firms generate their own ‘know how'; previous legal opinions, precedent pleadings, copies of unreported cases, tricks and tactics that you get from asking a colleague rather than opening a book. Increasingly the information is in email messages between authors.

Many firms start up their own database(s) to keep track of these treasures, albeit only as a filing cabinet of unreported cases. But if the information there is so valuable, it deserves to be easily accessible, preferably ‘online', indexed, searchable and easily updated. In fact, it would be most helpful if all this information were presented like, say, Laws of New Zealand with short extracts of the really useful information and ‘hyperlinks' where necessary to the full text of any cases or other sources quoted.

Heaney & Co

Ours is a niche firm: we focus on the liability of local authorities. We subscribe to many electronic databases and use a 'bespoke' Access database to index the unreported cases, articles and opinions that we generate and collect.

The Access database has its shortcomings, for instance it provides an index only. Thus, you need to recover the paper document if the summary in the database suggests the document is useful. It also does not capture those useful snippets of information that are so elusive; we started looking for another way of capturing our in-house knowledge.

What we needed was software that could act as a container for web pages, Word documents, PDF files and other snippets of information that will automatically index everything, provide a search facility, and be able to be accessed from any desktop in the office. The software should also be easy to use, particularly when adding content or making changes.

I investigated the software available for this task. The nearest commercial product is Microsoft Sharepoint Portal Server. However, the licensing and hardware requirements of that product were prohibitive.

I looked to the open source software movement for ideas.

I struck pay dirt with a programme written by Ward Cunningham to solve a similar problem, how to enable programmers working collaboratively on large software projects to document the projects. This technical documentation changes over time and needs to be updated by many people. Mr. Cunningham wanted to overcome the constraints of using word processing documents to capture this information, such as the difficulty in tracking changes or embedding hyperlinks to other resources. He also wanted to get away from the delays inherent in updating and approving changes to the documentation.

Mr. Cunningham wrote the first example of this software in 1994. It was a small programme that ran on a server and allowed any member of the development team to make instant updates to the online documents. All changes were logged and could be reviewed and compared to previous versions. The documentation was viewed and edited using a standard web browser, no special software was required. Mr Cunningham called his software 'Wikiwiki', apparently Hawaiian for quick.

Since then, the Wiki concept has been taken up by the open-source community as a means of collaborating. It has moved from its single project origins to become a way of recording information on more general themes, e.g. a particular programming language at fox.wikis.com or, even more ambitiously, at en.wikipedia.org, a project to build a comprehensive free encyclopaedia relying on contributions from the public. University lecturers have adopted Wiki's as a way of holding a discourse with their students while activists use the programme to marshal their arguments, i.e. the Trident Ploughshares legal Wiki at www.andrewgray.uklinux.net/tpwiki/wiki.pl?FrontPage.

How a Wiki Works

There are versions of the Wiki concept available for most operating systems written in most computer languages. There are also 'hosted' versions available where users can start their own Wiki with nothing more than a web browser and an idea.

A Wiki consists of separate pages, each with a (unique) name describing the subject matter of the page. The page itself is 'plain text', usually stored in a database, but when viewed in a web browser, it is translated into web friendly HTML. In addition to the plain text, the page contains navigation links and a menu with options. The most important says 'Edit this page'. Anyone clicking this link is lead to the text of the page and can make additions and changes to the text of the page, which when saved, replaces the original text.

Hyperlinks are the essence of the web and the use of hyperlinks is one of the reasons that the Wiki concept works so well. A web address is translated into a hyperlink to that page. A link to another page in the Wiki is generated automatically when the name of the page is entered in a special format, usually by having the words squished together with the initial letter capitalized, this is known as CamelCase. If the page doesn't exist, the Wiki software puts a question mark after the CamelCased phrase; clicking on this opens a blank page of the same name ready for new text to be entered. Links can also be made to any other resource, be that a Word document or a PDF file.

Which Wiki?

Our preference was to host a Wiki on an existing server running Windows 2000 with the Microsoft web server (IIS) installed, so I reviewed Windows based Wiki programs, eventually settling on OpenWiki (www.openwiki.com).

This Wiki is released under an open source license allowing free use of the code. Features include:

In Part II (in the next issue) I will cover:

In the meantime, readers are invited to visit the official OpenWiki site (www.openwiki.com), to browse and perhaps even to test the concept out in the sandbox (www.openwiki.com/ow.asp?SandBoxForLawyers) or to add comments on the Wiki page that I have started at www.openwiki.com/ow.asp?WikisForLawyers.

Other references: Operation of a Large Scale, General Purpose Wiki Website, a paper by Lars Aronsson as presented on November 7, 2002, at the ELPUB 2002 conference in Karlovy Vary, aronsson.se/wikipaper.html.

Wiki Tools' from PC Magazine, 30 December 2003 edition, www.pcmag.com/article2/0,4149,1402872,00.asp.

The original publicly accessible Wiki by Mr. Cunningham at c2.com/cgi/wiki.This site serves, in part, as a repository for all things Wiki, i.e. the following page lists known Wiki software programmes - c2.com/cgi/wiki?WikiEngines.

Paul Robertson is Associate at Heaney & Co, Auckland New Zealand (www.heaneyco.com). Paul has a general litigation practice with the emphasis on claims involving local authorities. He also keeps an eye on the firms IT needs.
Email Email par@heaneyco.com.

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