Using a sociological approach in “e-discovery technologies”

Legal cases can generate a tremendous amount of documents that each side needs to examine. With new searching technology, legal teams can now go through a lot more data for a lot less money. In one example, “Blackstone Discovery of Palo Alto, Calif., helped analyze 1.5 million documents for less than $100,000.” But within this discussion, the writer suggests that these searches can be done in two ways:

E-discovery technologies generally fall into two broad categories that can be described as “linguistic” and “sociological.”

The most basic linguistic approach uses specific search words to find and sort relevant documents. More advanced programs filter documents through a large web of word and phrase definitions. A user who types “dog” will also find documents that mention “man’s best friend” and even the notion of a “walk.”

The sociological approach adds an inferential layer of analysis, mimicking the deductive powers of a human Sherlock Holmes. Engineers and linguists at Cataphora, an information-sifting company based in Silicon Valley, have their software mine documents for the activities and interactions of people — who did what when, and who talks to whom. The software seeks to visualize chains of events. It identifies discussions that might have taken place across e-mail, instant messages and telephone calls…

The Cataphora software can also recognize the sentiment in an e-mail message — whether a person is positive or negative, or what the company calls “loud talking” — unusual emphasis that might give hints that a document is about a stressful situation. The software can also detect subtle changes in the style of an e-mail communication.

A shift in an author’s e-mail style, from breezy to unusually formal, can raise a red flag about illegal activity.

So this second technique gets branded as “sociological” because it is looking for patterns of behavior and interaction. If you wondered how the programmers set up their code in order to this kind of analysis, it sounds like some academics have been working on the problem for almost a decade:

[A computer scientist] bought a copy of the database [of Enron emails] for $10,000 and made it freely available to academic and corporate researchers. Since then, it has become the foundation of a wealth of new science — and its value has endured, since privacy constraints usually keep large collections of e-mail out of reach. “It’s made a massive difference in the research community,” Dr. McCallum said.

The Enron Corpus has led to a better understanding of how language is used and how social networks function, and it has improved efforts to uncover social groups based on e-mail communication.

Any sociologists involved in this project to provide input on what the programs should be looking for in human interactions?

This sort of analysis software could be very handy for sociological research when one has hundreds of documents or sources to look through. Of course, the algorithms might have be changed for specific projects or settings but I wonder if this sort of software might be widely available in a few years. Would this analysis be better than going through one by one through documents in coding software like Atlas.Ti or NVivo?

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