How Microsoft tech enabled the Clooney Foundation for Justice to bring transparency to courtrooms

Mar 26, 2020   |  

According to human rights activists, courts can be used to oppress vulnerable groups, target political opponents, and silence journalists and government critics. The challenge is that trials are held in countries with varying legal standards.

The Clooney Foundation for Justice, an organization that’s co-led by international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney and her husband, George Clooney, worked with Microsoft to create a tool that supports accountability in the courtroom, which it says is necessary to protect and defend human rights. The partnership with the Clooney Foundation for Justice is a cornerstone of Microsoft’s AI for Humanitarian Action program, which leverages AI to support disaster recovery, help refugees and displaced people, ensure the safety and well-being of children, and promote human rights.

To quote U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” In other words, having a trial monitor present and a public report puts pressure on the judge and courtroom system to protect and defend human rights.

Protecting and defending human rights with machine learning

The Clooney Foundation for Justice turned to Microsoft to create a data-driven tool that supports transparency in the courtroom, which is necessary to protect and defend human rights. Announced in Microsoft President Brad Smith’s blog post about the TrialWatch program, the partnership led to the creation of the TrialWatch app, a mobile application that empowers trial monitors to capture data about a trial in one place, record trial information to assess its fairness, and provide findings to the Clooney Foundation for Justice in real time.

“It’s impossible to have a window into every courtroom across the globe,” Smith says. “That’s why digital technology in the hands of human rights experts and volunteers can be a game changer. It can help human rights advocates like the Clooney Foundation for Justice scale their efforts.”

[Learn how Microsoft built an immigration tool that helps foreign national employees navigate the United States immigration system. Learn how we created efficiencies in finance with Dynamics 365 and machine learning. Check out how Microsoft uses AI and chatbots to simplify finance tools.]

The TrialWatch app was built by an agile, cross-company team that included Alina Pana, who was a senior program manager in Microsoft Philanthropies at the time; Iliyas Chawdhary, an engineering manager from Microsoft Core Services Engineering and Operations (CSEO); and Chawdhary’s engineering team to build the TrialWatch application with a mobile interface that could be used on different operating systems.

After a careful evaluation, the team determined that Microsoft Dynamics 365 would be a great fit because of its ability to track cases and handle business processes and workflows, which are key features of the TrialWatch app.

“We have solved technical problems at scale in the past, but the impact of this project was something my team hadn’t been involved with before,” Chawdhary says. “While we were doing this, we spent a lot of time understanding user needs with design-led thinking, and how we could address them with Azure Cognitive Services.”

Supporting trial monitoring around the world

In addition to Microsoft Dynamics 365, the TrialWatch app uses Azure Cognitive Services for its language transcription and translation capabilities and Xamarin for its ability to port the application across mobile platforms. This technology design and approach was chosen based on survey data and conversations with Clooney, her team at the Clooney Foundation for Justice, and students at Columbia Law School, a TrialWatch initiative partner. Pana says that she traveled to New York to conduct usability tests with students in one of Clooney’s classes. This data informed user stories, feature priorities, and each iteration of the TrialWatch app.

“This was the first time my team was building for external users beyond Microsoft, so bringing in that user experience perspective was new for the entire team,” Chawdhary says. “We wanted to build a solution that any volunteer could use, regardless of their legal background.”

The app is integrated with Microsoft OneNote, which provides a structured notebook for notetaking and data matching, with a Dynamics questionnaire that’s used to evaluate each trial. The team also thought about how they could use AI to help volunteers follow along with the trial in real-time.

“Amal and her team said that it would be easier for volunteers to take an audio recording versus capturing notes or fill in the questionnaire in real time,” Pana says. “That’s when we decided to bring in Azure Cognitive Services and use its speech-to-text service, which uses deep neural network models to accurately transcribe courtroom proceedings.”

Pana also learned that trial proceedings are done in the native language of the courtroom, but they needed to be translated into English so legal experts could evaluate the fairness of the trial.

Given the global scope of TrialWatch’s use, the application uses the Translator Text API, a feature of Azure Cognitive Services, to record and translate audio data from local languages into English. These documents are then stored in the cloud, which the Clooney Foundation for Justice can access to see the results of each trial and compare datasets.

One challenge is that trial monitors aren’t guaranteed to have laptops or an internet connection. To address this, Chawdhary developed the offline mode that enables users to collect data offline and sync it when they have a stable network connection.

“We took an iterative approach and kept working on it until we had a minimum viable product,” Chawdhary says. “Using AI was part of our MVP scope because we need to look beyond usage in the U.S.”

The Clooney Foundation for Justice uses the textual and audio data to publish trial monitoring reports, which act as an indispensable record of proceedings. These reports are shared with international lawyers, journalists, and diplomats who can support legal advocacy for defendants; or they can be used by the Clooney Foundation for Justice itself to take on cases after trial. For example, the Clooney Foundation for Justice recently published a report about the criminal trial of academic and prominent women’s and LGBTQ+ rights activist Dr. Stella Nyanzi in Uganda.

Ultimately, the TrialWatch app is a tool that standardizes the trial monitoring process. Chawdhary hopes to keep this user-centric approach in mind when developing features for other Microsoft projects.

“This was a learning experience about how we’re approaching designing inclusive and intuitive user experiences,” Chawdhary says. “This learning will remain with my team and CSEO at large.”

Learn how Microsoft built an immigration tool that helps foreign national employees navigate the United States immigration system.

Learn how we created efficiencies in finance with Dynamics 365 and machine learning.

Check out how Microsoft uses AI and chatbots to simplify finance tools.

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