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FAST enterprise search at core of European Court of Human Rights website

The European Court of Human Rights website redesign uses Microsoft FAST enterprise search and SkyDox technology so visitors can easily find 90,000 documents related to rulings in 47 nations.

The European Court of Human Rights is overhauling its website, hoping to make the clearinghouse for human rights court rulings and case law in its 47 member nations as simple and intuitive as

The ECHR site gets 4.6 million visits a year from lawyers, government officials, students, professors, journalists and citizens seeking rulings and information about the state of individual freedoms in Europe. After almost a decade using a site designed using the former Fulcrum Technologies document management software, ECHR decided it was time to simplify the task of finding information by using FAST enterprise search.

Further complicating the project, it has to be as easily accessible from mobile devices so Europe’s poorest citizens, who can’t afford computers, are able to get critical information using the mobile devices that many of them increasingly can afford.

“It has to be intuitive,” said John Hunter, the head of the IT Department for the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). “We have a public obligation to make this accessible as widely as possible.” The new site will enable search of 90,000 documents on rulings that affect more than 800 million inhabitants.

The new site uses Microsoft FAST Search Server for SharePoint as the search engine and is based on SkyDox’s cloud-based file sharing and collaboration platform. The free site requires no login or entering of personal data. The initial launch will be in English and French with more languages to follow.

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The ECHR was established in Strasbourg, France, in 1953 by the Council of Europe to promote democracy and the rule of law following World War II. Member countries must sign a Convention of Human Rights that sets out certain rights and compels them to abolish the death penalty, and the court hears complaints from citizens about human rights violations. Court rulings must then be integrated into the domestic law of the state involved.

After establishing a business case for the overhaul, the ECHR raised 350,000 Euros for the redesign project and conducted an 18-month technology assessment and proof of concept using 106 different CMS/search criteria. Hunter said the search could have been completed much faster, except that eight months into it the market quickly consolidated. First, Microsoft bought FAST, HP acquired Autonomy and then IBM purchased Vivisimo. Once the dust settled, ECHR picked FAST and quickly decided to use SkyDox as its development partner.

While a few of the other eight search platforms offered similar functionality as FAST, “it’s licensing structure was very easy to understand and affordable,” Hunter said, and, because Microsoft technology is supported by a vast universe of developer groups, “if we had a problem, we could go onto Google and get answers.”

“It’s a very open system,” he added. “We are using Java Script for the user interface and we can push anything against it. It’s interoperable with all sorts of other platforms.”

To ensure an intuitive user experience, designers created templates of the search fields and then turned those into graphical representations that illustrated just how the landing pages should appear. They handed those off to SkyDox and the company matched the representations of the landing pages.

SkyDox integrated ECHR’s back-end SharePoint collaboration and document management systems with the FAST engine and its cloud technology. It wrote algorithms for established search terms that would then trigger a set of new search refiners that narrow choices with each successive click to help users get to their subject faster and more accurately. A list of related documents is provided with each finding.

All public-facing documents are indexed by Google, RSS feeds can be initiated with a single click and social media buttons enable easy information sharing.

The back-end data repository is designed with failover and load balancing servers using a SharePoint farm structure and two SQL Servers.

“We’ve gone very quickly from the old to the new, and we hope that it will help people get to what they need very quickly,” Hunter said. “At the end of the day, search is the most vital business system.”

Beginning next week, ECHR expects to expand the reach of its site search capabilities to more than 5 million users and be able to accommodate 5,000 visitors at a given time when rulings are made. The integration of document management, enterprise search and a cloud-based collaboration in the Web CMS promises automated Google indexing for public-facing documents, improved ECHR real-time collaboration efforts and reduced overhead.

After the launch, ECHR begins a second effort to implement the new search capability internally to improve its back-end enterprise content management system, Hunter said. “The site launch is just the first step in a very, very exciting project.”

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