Jul 11 2013

How computing in schools was “dumbed down” and computer education became ICT

Jason

Not specifically a Legal IT post I know, but I’m sure it is of interest to anyone involved in IT. The announcement by the UK Department for Education that it plans to teach “rigorous computer science” to all children.

This to me is fantastic news and about time. I totally agree that ICT in schools has gone down the path that this article indicates:

“…attempts to teach programming and the deeper ideas of computer science were dropped and in their place children were exposed to word processors and spreadsheets – mostly Word, Excel and, of course, all running on Windows.”

The rest of the same article rings true too, especially that there was a big interest in programming around the time of the ZX Spectrum, BBC Micro etc (anyone remember INPUT magazine?), but the army of home grown programmers then tailed off. The arrival of the iPhone/iPad and the “App” has garnered some interest again and hopefully we can inspire a new generation of UK kids to code.

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My only worry with this initiative is that the BCS (British Computer Society) are involved. I worry they have the governments ear, yet do not really represent modern day IT and deliver a more academic view of IT. What we need is to encourage the IT industry to help and really get involved with local schools and teachers to enable them to give kids a real world understanding of modern IT programming.

So like I said this isn’t necessarily Legal IT related, but a call to Legal IT developers to get involved!

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Mar 24 2011

The Helpdesk is king (oh and local IT support too!)

Jason

I read an article in The Spectator magazine recently that touched on a customer satisfaction survey of hotels in the USA. The following point caught my eye:

What emerged from this study was that a guest’s enjoyment and appreciation of almost every aspect of a hotel is coloured by their initial experience of their visit — specifically how fast and easy they had found the business of checking-in.

From a Legal IT point of view I’m sure the same is valid, how that first contact with IT comes across (typically the helpdesk or a local IT support) will colour their view on IT.

The article goes on to say:

It supports other research suggesting our memories of events are much more determined by how they begin and end than by ‘the stuff in the middle’. (The NHS does itself a disservice here — the stuff in the middle is often good, but the admission and discharge procedures are dreadful.) What has very little effect on our memory of any experience is its duration.

In a Legal IT context, the “begin” would be the initial contact with the IT department. The point where IT needs to answer quickly, be polite and be knowledgeable (not necessarily able to fix every problem, but enough to know when they can’t, explain they can’t and move the call on quickly to those that can).

The “end” is where the lawyers IT problem is solved and importantly the customer informed that it’s solved (based on a recent survey I’ve seen, something that is often forgotten).

So let’s divert all resource and budget to the helpdesk? Of course not, it’s not all about ensuring your helpdesk is spot on, the bit in the middle is after all pretty critical too! Without it you’ll rarely reach the problem solved and if that’s the case then you may as well not bother answering the phone in the beginning! It’s a balance, but clearly from the hotels survey getting that first point of contact spot on could just make everything IT do seem so much better.

One last quote from the Spectator article, “What has very little effect on our memory of any experience is its duration”, now there’s a start for an article on project deliverables at some point!

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May 3 2010

It’s nearly time to vote – Election 2010 and IT

Jason

Given that in the UK this Thursday we will be going to the polls for our General Election, I thought I should do an election themed post. Having trawled through the manifestos of the three main parties I was intending to do a “BBC style” evenly balanced view on what the plans in the manifestos would mean to IT.

But then given that this is my own blog I thought no I’ll give you my thoughts and that means there will no doubt be some bias! After all the comments are open for you all to air your thoughts in return.

So here is my opinion on what the manifestos might mean to IT, feel free to disagree either in the comments or on May 6th :-)

In the Liberal Democrats manifesto IT comes up as follows:

Better government IT procurement, investigating the potential of
different approaches such as cloud computing and open-source
software.

savings that can be made across government – such as on pay, public sector pensions, and IT provision

In Labours:

continuing to cut bureaucracy and inefficiency in procurement, IT and overtime

giving virtually every household in the country a broadband service of at least two megabits per second by 2012

priority in the expansion of student places will be given to …. , technology, engineering and mathematics degrees

We will scale down the NHS IT programme

And in the Conservatives:

a freeze on major new Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) spending

We need to boost enterprise and develop a low carbon,
hi-tech economy

We want Britain to become a European hub for hi-tech, digital and creative industries

Make Britain the leading hi-tech exporter in Europe (whole section of the manifesto)

An economy where Britain leads in science, technology and innovation

So if you remove each parties plans to cut IT costs in government (which to be honest is inevitable given our spend on debt interest alone is higher than our spend on schools!), what are you left with?

Well the Liberal Democrats have a admirable but somewhat woolly commitment to look at open source software and, er well that’s it. Labour promise to give all of us (although watch for that virtually comment!) 2Mb broadband and a more worthy commitment to technology degrees. Not much so far, so we’re left with the Conservatives to focus a whole section of their manifesto on  growing the economy through the technology sector (Listen to the section here).

Clearly no one is going to base their vote solely on the IT sector, but in a display of complete and utter bias I say that Conservatives show a much more compelling view for the IT sector.

And in a final show of unbelievable political bias I leave you with this video, enjoy 😉

p.s. That’s it I promise, no more election posts until at least 2014 (unless of course you all vote Liberal Democrat, we end up with a hung parliament and we go through this all again in October!)

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Apr 12 2010

Backups – that dull bit of IT that someday you wish you’d done!

Jason

Everyone who has ever lost data from their computer knows the importance of backups and for a law firm (no matter what size) it’s critical. I don’t suppose there is much point in me outlining the detail of why? But if you are interested in a good summary of why backup is a good idea try this site.

Also don’t fall into the trap of assuming that electronic data is not as safe and so keep everything as a piece paper. More often than not electronic information is just as safe (if not more so) if looked after. Take a look at this story as to why a printout in an offsite facility is not necessarily that safe!

If you work for a big law or mid-sized law firm, you’ll probably have an IT department and they will probably have some or all of the following:

  • A regime of daily and weekly backups of your data
  • Transfer of older backups to offsite locations
  • Larger firms may have multiple online data centres with your data replicated between them

For small law firms the picture may be different, but still there maybe a tape or disk backup. This may be taken offsite or perhaps even locked in a fire safe.

But even with your data backed up, there is more to just having the data safe when it comes to recovery from a disaster.

One benefit of a disk based backup (for example, on a small scale, a USB drive) is the fast recovery time. Just plug it in and access the data (in tech speak this is known as a small RTO or recovery time objective). Also there is no worry that at the time you need the backup the restoration software is not available!

For big law this switch to disk based backup is fine, this is why many have set up their multiple data centres, but what about small firms? USB drives can handle computer failure, but what about fire, flooding or other natural disasters? It’s a pain to keep swapping USB drives and taking one offsite or to have to lock it in a fire safe overnight etc (especially as the most convenient time to do the backup is overnight!)

Well take a look at this drive I recently got my hands on. It’s called an ioSafe and it’s main aim is to resolve this very problem!

ioSafe

It’s basically a fire proof, shockproof and waterproof USB drive. I’m not brave enough to trash it in the quest for a YouTube video demonstration of its capabilities, so you’ll have to take a look at these demonstrations!

BBC – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/8449893.stm

Channel 5 – http://fwd.five.tv/gadget-show/blog/episode-1-the-desert-challenge Note the follow on point on the C5 website on how they could have got the data back following the gadget show demo.

So what’s it like as a USB drive?

Well apart from the size and weight of the device it works pretty much as you’d expect. It’s low noise, there isn’t any noticeable speed difference to old my USB drive. The only mild criticism I’d have is that the activity light on the front is a a bit dim. But basically it’s a USB drive, and it just works as you’d expect!

The big benefit I can see of a device like this to a small law firm is that it can cope with a fire, a flood or I guess an earthquake! And the benefit over a DVD backup being taken offsite is that it can give a fast RTO (this could also be the case for it being used in conjunction with tape backups in larger firms to reduce the RPO – recovery point objective (more tech speak I know, but that basically means the acceptable amount of data loss measured in time i.e. a days worth of data lost if you restore to that DVD that went offsite yesterday).

All ioSafe hardware also comes with a Data Recovery Service. So should a drive be damaged for any reason ioSafe will spend up to £500 to recover the data and then send it back to the customer on a replacement device!

For pure backup it’s a great concept and perfect for small business, but I can see a question and a future threat that you may want to consider:

The question – cost?

  • A 1Tb version is £260 vs. a 1Tb standard USB drives cost of £80
  • The value is in the fireproof, water proof aspect. Is it worth it? Well I guess if you look at a decent fire safe being £100, needing an extra drive 2x £80 to be able to pack a USB drive away each night in the safe. You’re at the same price! Then factor in the ioSafe convenience and  benefits of the DRS should there be issues with the recovery and the ioSafe doesn’t look too bad value wise!

The threat – cloud based backup!

There are some cloud based backup options but for law firms I see a few issues with these at them moment:

  • Confidentiality – ensuring that this is met and for those particularly outside the US that cross jurisdictional issues don’t crop up
  • Cost – most are subscription based and charged at cost per Gb. There could also be data transfer costs depending on your internet connection deal with your ISP.
  • Risk of the company going bust and losing the backup of your data.

Longer term I think cloud based backup may be easiest form of backup, but for now have a look at the regime you have in place and check whether it would keep your law firm going in a disaster. If you’re after a little more piece of mind with a USB based system, then maybe ioSafe is just the device for your practice?

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Jan 28 2010

Apple iPad – a disappointment for legal

Jason

A lawyer sits in an airport lounge, pulls out the iPad and connects to the firms document management system (DMS) through the Autonomy iManage App in the AppStore. She flicks through the correspondence folder, checks her teams filed emails and reads up on the clients comments to the agreement draft. She then decides to dictate some amendments to her secretary using the built-in microphone. Launching the agreement from the DMS, she highlights the paragraph needing amendment and also launches the BigHand dictation app ……

<Fail> No multitasking on the iPad!

There have been plenty of posts why the iPad falls short some I agree with some I don’t. But as a device for lawyers or other business usage I think it’s a case of “not there yet”.

As well as lack of multitasking, I think for a tablet to be a great tool for a lawyer it would need to replace the touch keyboard with a stylus/pen and good handwriting recognition. Marking up a document on a tablet with a pen surely is the “revolutionary” vision Mr Jobs?

It’s not far off and to be fair to Apple I never thought it would be a business tool, it’s a consumer device. But as a consumer I’m personally not convinced there is a gap between the smartphone and the netbook. I prefer the former on the move and if I wanted something a little more the later would be more convenient (and less tied into the Apple eco system!)

So after all the hype, the multitude of blog responses (including this one) I’m left with the feeling that with the iPad Apple have maybe left us with another :-

Apple Newton

The Apple Newton

“magical truly revolutionary product” – Steve Jobs on the iPad

Perhaps it’s just too early for the technology that will make the tablet a real killer device. I think there is a gap (especially in business) for tablet PC’s, but the revolution will only come when it’s as convenient as a pad of paper or a paper magazine!

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Oct 26 2009

GeoCities RIP – 26/10/2009

Jason

This is not really a Legal IT post just a general post to mark today’s passing of GeoCities.

Geocitiesoriginallogo GeoCities : July 1995 – 26th October 2009

GeoCities was to budding web developers what the BBC Micro, ZX Spectrum etc were to budding developers ten years earlier. Starting in the mid 90’s it was a place to host web pages, enabling millions of people to upload their “under construction” images and dancing babies animated gifs!

RIP GeoCities!

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Sep 30 2009

No, no, no! Who asked for that?

Jason

I was reading an article yesterday, from an interview with Steve Balmer. It was about Microsoft’s direction and its competitors (in particular FireFox, Google and Linux). One comment stood out:

Yeah, we’re right now about 74 percent overall with the browser market, roughly speaking. But we’re having to compete like heck with IE 8, with great new features.

This to me showed how “off the ball” Microsoft are!

Now before I go on let me say the following. I hate seeing Micro$oft. I am not an Apple or Linux fanboy, in fact I would go as far to say I really don’t care of MacOS that much. Yes I really like the iPhone interface, but would never buy one thanks to having to have iTunes to activate the thing. So I use a Windows Mobile device. I’ve used Ubuntu and think it’s alright, but actually I honestly prefer Windows. I love the xbox. So I’m not Microsoft bashing here.

There now I’ve said that, back to the quote. In particular this sentence “But we’re having to compete like heck with IE 8, with great new features.”

My response as per the title, no, no, no, who asked for that? I don’t want more features, in fact I want less. I want my browser to be small and very fast and just let me browse. If IE8 had come out and was barebones fast as you like, I would probably have switched back from FireFox!

This got me thinking about lawyers and legal software and the same applies. Just give them the features they require. Make the next release of the Document Management System, the CRM system, the finance system, the template management system, the digital dictation system leaner.

Take Word or any Word Processor. How much functionality does the average lawyer need? Most law firms will also have multiple add ins to provide more functionality. The integration with the add ins should be slicker and removing of the unnecessary proprietary options easier.

Most people want to get on with the task in hand, the software should help that both quickly and easily. So with the browser, it should help me browse, end of! The DMS should help be file and retrieve my documents. Outlook should let me manage my email. etc etc 

So no more new features please unless it’s going to make the task I’m using the software for easier and faster!

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Aug 5 2009

Give them a bigHand!

Jason

Sorry, I know that’s a terrible pun!

A warning, this is a bit of a techie post. So for the non-IT readers of the blog, a summary of the post:  “if more vendors/suppliers did what bigHand do in their software design your IT department could upgrade software or change the settings for you much faster!”

On with the post…

As firms grow in size there are a number of IT challenges that can become more and more difficult due to the additional numbers. One of these challenges is those “small” upgrades to get to the latest version that seem to lengthen exponentially with the number of extra desktop PC’s supported. This also goes for changing the configuration or settings of those software applications. Especially when you want to alter a setting that is located locally on the PC (for example, iManage FileSite holds a lot of it’s client settings/configuration in the local PC registry, whereas with Workshare it’s in an XML file on the PC).

bigHand though seem to have a different approach.

At the moment we’re looking at an upgrade of our bigHand digital dictation installation to v3.2.3 and because of this I spent Tuesday on a technical training course for the new version. During the course we went through the client configuration.

And in bigHand for the most part these can be set using roles in the central database. This means they’re very simple to change instantly and also means you can simply manage different configurations for different people. All this can be done without the need to deploy patches, upgrades or do any amendments on the desktop PC.

Other settings for things like drivers to use for microphones can be managed using group policy using the bigHand provided administrative template file (.adm files). Again no mucking about on the desktop PC.

Simple and brilliant!

So if you need to disable a menu option for all the users? Simple! Just amend the role and apply once centrally! This makes upgrades easier as well as your client deployment can be a simple default install without the need to heavily customise for all those specific settings (especially if you have one configuration for fee earners, one for secretaries, one for support staff etc etc).

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Jul 2 2009

Does IT matter in law firms?

Jason

I read my copy of Computing magazine today and the comment section caught my eye. It was an article entitled “Focus Resources on what really matters” by Martin Butler, the basic premise is that IT has become caught up in a drive for efficiency at the expense of business success. In the current “economic climate” there is of course a natural tendency for cutting costs, corporate IT departments are usually large cost centres and thus are prime targets for cost savings. 

It reminded me though of an article I read some years ago about the shift of IT to a utility function akin to the railways or electricity companies (IT Doesn’t Matter by Nicholas G. Carr published in the Harvard Business Review). The premise being that these businesses “open opportunities for forward-looking companies to gain strong competitive advantages. But as their availability increases and their cost decreases – as they become ubiquitous – they become commodity input”.

These are opposite views of IT, one as a continuing driver for business growth and one as a driver for business efficiency and cost savings.

Now, I’ve started reading Richard Susskind’s “The End of Lawyers?” and I’m currently at the point where he talks about “technology lag”. This is the lag between two forms of technology: data processing and knowledge processing. The former (data processing) he puts as the “use of technology to capture, distribute, reproduce and disseminate information.”, the later (knowledge processing) a “set of technologies that help us analyse, sift through and sort out the mountains of data that we have created and helps make them more manageable.”

Richard Susskind points out that we are between these two forms of technology, in law firms I agree. And I think Martin Butler’s view of the IT function is the one that will facilitate this move and be able to supply the “Knowledge Processing” in law firms. I’m afraid that Nicolas Carr’s IT function will give us very efficient and cost effective departments that are stuck in “Data Processing”! It’ll be interesting as we climb out of the recession which law firm IT departments become.

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Apr 23 2009

From Novell and Word Perfect to global data centres – law firm IT : a history

Jason

There was a blog post doing the rounds over Easter via twitter about a law firms marketing dept that asked an employee to stop re-tweeting the firms twitter posts made me think twice about writing a post on the brief history of our IT dept. But then I give our marketing team a bit more credit than that, so here goes. A blog post whose sole purpose is just for a bit of light end of week reading.

I include the name the firm as it really doesn’t take more than a few clicks to work out which law firm I work for. And so before you read on you might also want to read my disclaimer, especially if you’re a lawyer just so you’re under no illusions that this is some kind of official blog post :-)

The IT dept as it stands now had its genesis back in the city of Bradford in West Yorkshire. It was housed in a lovely 1960’s office block (see photos below), a building called Arndale House. At the time the firm was known as Dibb Lupton Broomhead and was still very much a Yorkshire firm rather than the global organisation it is now. At that time there was also an IT presence in the main Sheffield office (a team looking after the network and a couple of Unix boxes, the helpdesk, the training team and the IT director), however it was the smaller team based in Bradford which was the start of what would become the global IT dept (the Bradford team quickly grew in those early days from 3 to approximately 9 people – 5 of whom still work for the firm).

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At the time the firm was on a Novell network with the main desktop application being Word Perfect and it only had internal email (although an external AOL account was available from one IT machine!!).

The Bradford team was crammed into 3 small rooms, sharing the floor with the old DMRU teams, before growing slowly to take some open plan space outside these rooms and finally relocating to take half of the floor when it brought in some infrastructure teams and application support (all that was left in Sheffield was the help desk by this time and the firm had merged with Alsop Wilkinson to become the the burgundy national firm Dibb Lupton Alsop)

dibbluptonalsop

At this point external email was up and running, Windows 2000 had replaced Novell, the firms intranet was in place (together with a flickering candle for the ‘I’ of iSIS at Christmas time! It was after all when animated GIF’s ruled the web!) and some thoughts on a matter centric DMS for the firm were starting to emerge (if you worked in the the dept at that time then do you remember 80/20? The ideas from which generated the firms home grown matter centric DMS years before WorkSite 8).

Growth for the dept mirrored the firm and by Y2K it had re-camped again to take an entire floor, two below its previous home in Arndale House. A large open plan aircraft hanger of an office now housed all the IT dept (helpdesk, business systems development, technical development and support teams for applications and infrastructure).

There was a relocation of many of the servers running the IT services from Sheffield to two rows of racks in a nice new server room on the same floor as the dept (apart from the dodgy air conditioning which required portable units to be introduced on many occasions. In fact dodgy air conditioning seems to be a recurring theme in all the offices the dept has been located!)

DLA-blue-squareBy 2001 the firm had become the blue squared DLA and the IT dept had relocated from Bradford to Leeds, this would enable it to continue to grow to meet the needs of the growing firm and for it to be closer to the firms offices in Leeds centre which were a much larger part of the firm than the operation in Bradford. Park Row House in Leeds centre was the new home (see photos below).

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It was the first time the dept had had meeting rooms, build and test rooms as well as a purpose built test server set up. The time at Park Row introduced many of the key cornerstones of the firms current environment. It also saw the firm start to grow its international IT hubs to support the non-UK offices.

DLA-round-square DLA-piper-rudnick-gray-cary

The switch from rounded DLA through DLA Piper Rudnick  Gray Cary to DLA Piper saw the IT dept out grow Park Row House and move to its present location in Leeds. The main IT dept is still located here but it now has key regional teams in Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Moscow, Vienna and Dubai, as well as a number of IT personal in most offices for local support and training.

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