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In Slovakia, Student Developers Open Up the Court System

BY Julia Wetherell | Thursday, February 21 2013

Screengrab from otvorenesudy.sk, showing a prototype of the dataset.

When two Slovak computer science students could not easily access the information they were looking for about court decisions on the Department of Justice website, they built a solution that made their search easier.  The dataset they created from information about 400,000 rulings since 1997 could be a model for open government practices in eastern Europe. 

Otvorené súdy — Slovak for "Open Courts" — is an initiative that came out of Restart Slovakia, a social entrepreneurship incubator that hosts competitions for funding among competing projects. The Guardian reported earlier this week that students Pavol Zbell and Samuel Molnár created Open Courts as a school project, hoping to facilitate easier comprehension of publicly available legal data, potentially making it accessible and tangible to journalists and developers. 

Like similar transparency efforts promoted by the Open Government Partnership, the project has major implications for pushing accountability from state agencies.  Yet Chris Worman, the director development for TechSoup Global, wrote in the Guardian that the attitude behind Open Courts is strikingly different:

Zbell and Molnár do not want to start an NGO. They don't associate themselves with the term "civil society", or appear to have any more faith in the third sector than they do in government. Their aim is to solve a problem through information. Their approach does not look much like a standard civil society process of researching, reflecting, and advocating. It looks like data-based for-profit apps, which tell you useful things, such as when your train is going to be late.

That commercial aspect may make the project more user-friendly than the standard open data project, but there are civil society concerns behind it.  According to their website, Zbell and Molnár were also working in collaboration with Transparency International Slovakia.  The organization says of the Open Courts that, “better access to information [will] lead, in most cases, to greater confidence in the judicial system.”  In a region known for institutional corruption, such an effort could make a significant impact. 

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

This article has been amended to correct Chris Worman's credentials; he was a guest writer in the Guardian Professional section.

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