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Interdisciplinary Team Receives NSF Grant to Build Open, Searchable Platform for Court Records

September 20, 2019

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An interdisciplinary team of Northwestern professors, including seven members of the Northwestern Law faculty, was awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Convergence Accelerator Grant this month for the Northwestern Open Access to Court Records Initiative (NOACRI). The million-dollar grant will support the group’s effort to download PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) dockets and build an open, searchable platform for the public and for researchers. The AI-powered data platform will transform the accessibility and transparency of the federal courts.

Currently, information about most of the workings of the federal judiciary—from how judges differ in managing cases to how cases involving corporations differ from those with individuals—is contained in court data that is locked behind a paywall, with a complicated interface that makes it difficult to assess systematic patterns about court activity. NOACRI’s team of 16 professors, which also include scholars from the McCormick School of Engineering, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and the Medill School of Journalism, is focused on creating the tools necessary to make this data available and then linking it to other public data about the litigants, judges, lawyers, and courts. The Northwestern Law faculty involved in the initiative are David Schwartz, Professor of Law, who is leading the project for the Law School; Zachary Clopton, Professor of Law; Erin Delaney, Professor of Law; Peter DiCola, Professor of Law; Tom Gaylord, Faculty Services and Scholarly Communications Librarian; Nancy Loeb, Clinical Associate Professor of Law; and Sarath Sanga, Associate Professor of Law.

“Our whole team is excited to receive this level of support from the NSF, which will help people and organizations across disciplines—including lawyers, journalists, economists, and  policy makers—better analyze the functioning of the federal judicial system,” says Schwartz. “The court system should be transparent, and we are thrilled that the NSF sees the potential for an interdisciplinary group like ours to address this problem.”

As the NSF explains, the vision of the Convergence Accelerator is to “identify areas of research where investment in convergent approaches —those bringing together people from across disciplines, united to solve problems – have the potential to translate to high-benefit results and advance ideas from concept to deliverables.” The first set of awards were given to “research teams that include partners from academia, industry, government and communities that will work to enable capabilities far beyond what is currently possible in either the private or public sectors.”